Consultant Respiratory Physician
Dr Hitasha Rupani is a Consultant Respiratory Physician at University Hospital Southampton and holder of a Research Leaders Programme (RLP) fellowship.
Her research focuses on improving our understanding and treatment of asthma and asthma attacks.
Coming back to Southampton
Hitasha became interested in asthma research during her medical degree, when she took a year out to focus on a BSc research project at the University of Southampton. After graduating, she then went on to do an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship, taking her research into asthma a step further.
She came to University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust to do her PhD, which she completed in 2015. This investigated the immune responses of people with severe asthma to viral infections and how they vary.
Hitasha has since become a consultant, continuing her research at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust. While this mostly consisted of technology-based trials in collaboration with small and medium enterprises, she also did her own research. This included looking at asthma outcomes after an intense education programme, and trialling different ways of diagnosing asthma.
She returned to Southampton in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. This restricted the amount of research she has been able to do so far. While she has mostly been supporting other clinical trials, she has set up a multi-centre study also looking at immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines in patients with severe asthma.
Now she’s looking to build on her experience to take her research a step further. She hopes that her RLP fellowship will enable her to do this.
“I would like to grow as an academic clinician,” she explains, “so having that time to dedicate to research will be helpful.
“I think the next step for me will be to try to incorporate more research into the day-to-day clinical running of the asthma service in Southampton.”
Giving every patient the chance to take part
Hitasha would like to be able to offer all of her patients, many who have severe asthma, the opportunity to take part in research. She hopes her RLP fellowship will help her achieve this.
“I’ve always believed that every patient should have the chance to take part in research, but you need to develop the research for them to take part in,” she explains. “I think by giving me the time to do that, it will make it part of our team’s day-to-day work.”
The type of research studies patients take part in is likely to depend on their own individual situation. So some might join a trial for a new diagnostic test, whereas others could join a trial for a new treatment.
Ultimately, though, she hopes that taking part in research will improve their overall care and experience.
Developing research with patients
Hitasha is also keen to involve her patients in the design process for her trials and studies.
“We need to bear in mind that ultimately any research needs to benefit patients, so we need to speak to them to see what they want,” she says. “I think there are different ways to do research, and working with our patients to develop it is key.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hitasha, like many other researchers, was required to change the way she did her research. This, she says, has made her realise the importance of adapting our approach to make it easy for everyone to take part.
“During COVID, many patients took part in clinical trials, and this has shown many of them that actually it is quite nice to take part in research, that it doesn’t involve as much as they thought in the past.” she says.
“Many patients think ‘research’ involves a lot of visits, a lot of time, many complicated investigations. But not all research studies are like that and so we need to speak with patients and work with them to deliver trials that suit different patient groups”
“One of my current studies is completely virtual in that patients are contacted on the phone, they are consented virtually and they do a finger-prick blood test at home. This has really helped with recruitment, patients are not inconvenienced and as a research group we have been able to deliver on our research question.”
She feels the support her RLP fellowship provides will give her the structure and time she needs to offer such opportunities to her patients.
“The RLP fellowship is a fantastic opportunity offered by the trust and R&D,” she says. “It is widely accepted that patients have better outcomes at Trusts with more research-active clinicians.
“I think it’s a real testament to the Trust that they’ve invested in this, because it is going to improve patient outcomes and patient experience.”