The Scottish School of Primary Care: a new beginning in 2015

The Scottish School of Primary Care is a research school initiated in 2000 following considerable work by Dr Colin Hunter when he was Chair of RCGP Scottish Council, supported by Professor Lewis Ritchie. Its purpose was to increase research capacity by enabling research into important aspects of general practice and primary care to take place in a collaborative fashion across all the University departments of General Practice in Scotland.

It received core funding for a number of years from the Scottish Funding Council, the Chief Scientist Office (CSO), Scottish Council for Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education and its successor NHS Education for Scotland, and from the Scottish Government.

In the past, the three strands of SSPC have been:

  • To develop programmes of internationally recognised, methodologically rigorous research which address important issues in Scotland and beyond
  • To increase recruitment to trials and other methodologically rigorous research
  • To ensure higher level career development opportunities for researchers.

The function of recruitment to trials led to the development of the Scottish Primary Care Research Network (SPCRN), which for many years was integrated with the School. However, since 2014 the CSO of the Scottish Government has funded SPCRN independently such that it now takes the major role in patient recruitment to trials.

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The foundation director of SSPC was Professor Sally Wyke, Glasgow University. She was succeeded by Professor Frank Sullivan, Dundee University, who remained in post until he took up a post in Toronto. From September 2014, Professor Stewart Mercer was Director, and Dr John Gillies the Deputy Director (October 2015), both in post until the end of 2020.  Since early 2021 there has been two Co-Directors of the School, Professor Gill Hubbard, University of Highlands and Islands and Professor Lindsey Pope, University of Glasgow.

In its early years, SSPC hosted collaboration between researchers across many universities in Scotland; primary health care research programmes were active not just within the medical schools but also with colleagues in schools of nursing and pharmacy. This was important to establish an ethos of joint-working and collaboration.

The SSPC initiative was mirrored in England and Wales, where similar but better funded research schools are in place. However it proved increasingly difficult to secure funding for SSPC from previous streams and by 2012, there was very little funding for future work. Unfortunately the active ‘membership’ dwindled, and at the time of departure of Frank Sullivan as Director, the active HEIs were Aberdeen University, Dundee University, Edinburgh University, Glasgow University and Stirling University.

In 2012, Dr John Gillies, then Chair of Scottish Council, was asked to chair an external review with Prof Richard Hobbes (GP, Birmingham) Prof Frede Olesen, (GP, Aarhus, Denmark) and Prof Alison Blenkinsopp (Pharmacy, Bradford). By the summer of 2012, their report concluded that SSPC had represented good value for money, had delivered high quality research and contributed to the career structure for GP academics, and in view of evolving Scottish Government policy on the role of primary care and general practice, the SSPC should be supported for the future.

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Despite the positive review, further funding was not forthcoming at this time. However, following representations from RCGP Scotland and the BMA during the course of 2015, the Scottish Government announced new funding, between £40-60million, for general practice and primary care services.

The way in which the bulk of this resource is to be used is still not clear. But as recognition of the high quality of Scottish academic primary care, it was announced that for the next 30 months, £500,000 per annum would be allocated to SSPC.

This is based on the need to evaluate the many changes in both general practice and health policy, including the new GMS contract, the Scottish Government’s 2020 vision as well as integration of health and social care in Scotland over the next few years.

Therefore, unlike previous funding streams to the SSPC that have been used for research capacity building, the new Government funding is not for capacity-building, but rather funding to evaluate specific themes and projects set by the Government.

As in previous years, much academic work is likely to be carried out by collaboration between departments rather than competition.  We will also continue to build and develop international academic links.

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