Dr Julia Prague is a clinical consultant and clinical academic at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust and University of Exeter. In our interview, she tells us about her clinical practice and research projects, as well as how she thinks endocrine practice will evolve after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tell us a bit about your current position and what you enjoy most
As a clinical consultant and clinical academic I split my time almost 50/50 through the week. At the moment, my clinical commitments include outpatient endocrinology, and inpatient endocrinology, diabetes and general medicine. I moved from London to Exeter last year, and one of the big reasons to move was that near 50/50 split between clinical commitments and research. It’s a great balance that gives me time and space, not only to be with the patients, but also to investigate and take forward some of the issues that they bring up in clinic. Forming new collaborations and being in a new unit with new colleagues is pretty exciting too.
Research wise, I’m particularly interested in the menopause through a number of different collaborations. I’m working with the respiratory department on a project looking at lung conditions and sex hormones. Investigating the impact of the menopause in diabetes. I’m also still involved in establishing the role of neurokinin 3 receptor (NK3R) antagonists to treat hot flushes and improve sleep during the menopause.
What got you interested in research on menopause?
Spending hours with the women in our research study of a new treatment for menopausal flushes, and from receiving hundreds of emails from menopausal women wanting to take part. My admiration for them was huge, not least because they so often described themselves as struggling to cope, yet they were the complete opposite of that, meeting endless challenges with amazing fortitude and whilst mostly suffering in silence. To then see them leave misery and suffering behind and find themselves feeling vibrant and human again was rewarding beyond measure.
Furthermore, the majority of women will have menopausal symptoms that impact on all aspects of their daily life, but many will also have co-existing medical conditions before their menopause and these can also be impacted too. Many medical conditions are influenced by the menstrual cycle and that’s an aspect that is under-investigated and I think is really interesting. Inflammatory bowel disease, for example, can fluctuate during the menstrual cycle and Crohn’s disease typically gets better in pregnancy.
Diabetes is also impacted by the menstrual cycle, and it’s the same hormones that are changing during the menopause but this hasn’t been investigated, which is why I’m now interested in this, as this is something patients often report as being a problem for them. I think it’s important to listen to what patients are telling you and then try and investigate why that is, to hopefully find an improved solution for them.
How was your work affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
I was a Senior Registrar at King’s College Hospital at the height of the first wave, so I became involved in a lot of the management and service re-design work within the diabetes and endocrinology department, including rota management to facilitate re-deployment to general medicine but whilst maintaining a core specialist service and whilst supporting our junior trainees and particularly our international medical graduates who were isolated from their families, and ensuring our patients were supported and aware of sick day rules and had all the medications they needed. Our department was also therefore part of the frontline team. I was the medical registrar on call for the first peak weekend of King’s admissions. Then I got COVID-19 and could not get out of bed/off the sofa for 4 weeks.
I moved to Exeter towards the end of summer 2020 to take up my Consultant job. Since then I have continued to do quite a lot of frontline COVID inpatient medicine. Now we’re involved in recovery and trying to catch up. Many patients couldn’t be seen through the pandemic because resources had to be syphoned off elsewhere.
I never imagined I would interview for my consultant job on Zoom! Moving to a new city, a new department, a new consultant role and a new research role during the pandemic was definitely an interesting twist at such a significant stage of my life and career.
What are you proudest of in your career so far?
My work on menopause and NK3R antagonists – being published in The Lancet was a huge honour, and the potential that this work has to relieve suffering of women is incredible. As a doctor, all you want is to relieve suffering in your patients and this has that opportunity. It’s also given me a platform to continue working in that field and to be invited to speak at international conferences, as well as develop new collaborations.
This drug class are now in phase three studies and it looks like they’re probably going to be marketed from around 2023/2024. This research is still advancing within the pharmaceutical field, butte top-line results coming out continue to show great promise for the therapy. Seeing the NK3R antagonists come to market will be amazing. For me, to have played some part in that will be awesome and to see patients being able to go to clinicians and get that medication prescribed will be great.
There will be far fewer centres doing more complex endocrinology, and the development of this could be guided by some of what we have learnt regarding remote consultations and remote networking during the pandemic.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in endocrinology?
We have to mention COVID recovery, in what was an already overstretched system. However, somewhat linked to that, is the pull of general medicine on our time as endocrinologists. The pandemic has further highlighted this to be an important issue. Hospital inpatient medicine is busy and can’t be cancelled. However, it is essential for recruitment, training, and retention that our specialist time is more protected. The new internal medicine training (IMT) programme will change the number of specialty training years to shorten it, which could have some quite big consequences for the endocrine discipline.
COVID-19 has brought some positives though; it’s highlighted that we can achieve quite a lot remotely with patients using virtual appointments, and some patients prefer fitting their appointments in to their life rather than having to attend the hospital. How this translates going forward though could involve big changes for the specialty.
The Society has become much more inclusive, and far more diverse, with a much broader mix of people, and I think that should really be celebrated and welcomed.
What do you think will be the major changes in the future of endocrinology?
I think there will continue to be a drive for a smaller number of national centres of excellence in endocrinology. There will be far fewer centres doing more complex endocrinology, and the development of this could be guided by some of what we have learnt regarding remote consultations and remote networking during the pandemic. That will be good for patients overall but the downside could be that there will be a smaller number of centres with specialist services, which means that staff may have less involvement in specialist endocrinology. A lot of these changes will be driven by the GIRFT recommendations, which will affect how all services are delivered going forward.
What challenges do you see for your research?
Availability of funding will be critical. COVID has had an impact on available funding but so has Brexit, there’s now a lot of European grants that UK researchers will not be eligible for. Universities have less money because they’ve had fewer students and international students may think differently about studying in the UK post-Brexit and post-pandemic. Charities that fund research have also been hit as many of their fundraising activities were suspended during the COVID restrictions. The Government has a significant financial deficit to address. Availability of research funding was already challenging but it’s going to be even more difficult in the years to come. It’s usually funding that restricts research activity rather than a lack of ideas or collaborations.
How would you like to see the Society develop?
My overwhelming memory of attending my first Society meetings in 2006/2007 is of a lot of senior white men wearing tweed jackets! Now every time I come to Society meetings it’s such a stark change from that. Everything that the Society has done, and is doing, to make itself more reflective of everyone within it is really important. Recruiting the next generation is also a huge part of that, and it is great to also see more focus on this now than then too. The Society has become much more inclusive, and far more diverse, with a much broader mix of people, and I think that should really be celebrated and welcomed.
That level of change takes time and effort and over the years I’ve tried to play some part in helping to make the Society a more different place to the one that I initially knew.
As a Leadership and Development Awardee I was really looking forward to SfE BES 2020 as we were going to be paired with award lecturers, and it is also always a great opportunity to catch up with friends, previous colleagues, and previous as well as potential new collaborators. But of course, that didn’t happen. I’ve just been finding my feet as a new consultant and researcher in a new city but being an Awardee has opened up other opportunities. I’ve been involved in discussions with an external organisation exploring new collaborations and identifying our shared goals and objectives that we could achieve together. I’m sure that being an Awardee has helped me be offered these opportunities.
Who have you been most inspired by?
Prof John Wass, obviously, but I have also been very lucky to have amazing clinical and research mentors. From the literal beginning to the end of my clinical training and beyond (now over 15 years!) with Dr Simon Aylwin at King’s and Dr Roderick Clifton-Bligh in Sydney. I also learnt a lot from Prof Waljit Dhillo whilst doing my PhD at Imperial.
Why do you love endocrinology?
The balance of the acute and long-term follow up of patients, and the importance of making the right diagnosis for patients based on their history, examination and targeted investigation. Many patients with endocrine conditions go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for a long time, so when you make the right diagnosis and instigate the right treatment, they feel and do so much better and you often see it unfold in front of you. As endocrinologists we are also part of a much wider multidisciplinary team, which is great.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?
I’ve always tried to be involved with the Society in recruiting the next generation. It’s important that they get to see the ‘real’ endocrinology and diabetes because often, those rotation attachments are mostly inpatient general medicine.
My advice would be to try to get to clinic as much as possible because a lot of our patients are outpatients, and also to go and review specialty patients on the wards when they are admitted. Remember also that there’s lots of different sub-specialties within endocrinology (and diabetes) so there is a place for everyone and an opportunity to be involved in the areas that you find most interesting/rewarding.
Don’t let yourself be put off by the general medicine component or thinking that it’s all diabetic feet! I also always recommend going to SfE BES, it’s a really good platform for meeting other clinicians and scientists involved in the field, and hearing about the patients that we look after. Get involved, come along and see what the specialty really has to offer.
The Society for Endocrinology is 75 years old in 2021. As part of our celebrations, we are collecting members’ opinions, with a focus towards the future – after a particularly hard year for us all!
We are keen to reflect the diversity and breadth of our discipline by hearing from members across all backgrounds, career stages, career types and geographical locations, to get a true flavour of the range of views, needs and challenges faced by our Society members.