Dr Karen Walker-Bone
Dr Karen Walker-Bone is the director of the Arthritis Research UK–MRC Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work, and an associate professor in occupational rheumatology at the University of Southampton. Can you explain what your work involves?
As director of the centre I lead a team of researchers, working at universities all over the UK, who collaborate on research into the relationship between our health and work. We’ve got more than 10 different studies underway at the moment, each one dedicated to finding cost-effective ways to reduce the impact of arthritis on people’s working lives.
For many of us being able to stay in work is vital to our quality of life. Whether it’s in terms of job satisfaction and being able to continue in a career we’ve worked hard to build, our financial situation or simply to stay active and socialise with our colleagues, being able to work helps us to live well. But every day arthritis and other conditions affecting muscles, joints or bones, like back pain, prevent thousands of people from working; whether symptoms mean people are unable to work at all, experience regular and disruptive periods of sickness absence or go into work but struggle to do their job properly.
Our research explores how we can break down common barriers preventing people with arthritis from enjoying a thriving work life, whether that’s through changing employer attitudes, providing better support and advice for patients or equipping healthcare professionals with the latest information or other more complex interventions.
How long have you been funded by Arthritis Research UK? What difference has this funding made?
Our centre opened in 2014, funded by a £1.4 million grant from Arthritis Research UK and the Medical Research Council. The funding from Arthritis Research UK is absolutely pivotal to our work. Without this investment we wouldn’t be able to do this vital research here in the UK. It’s already having a wider impact – our growing reputation is helping us to attract funding from other sources.
What’s the most important thing you have found out over the last 12 months? Why?
Our findings from a recent trial investigating treatment of arm pain, led by a team at the University of Aberdeen, could have big implications for people experiencing pain below the elbow, helping them to stay in work.
"Our research showed that people who were advised to remain active were significantly less disabled by their symptoms after six months." Dr Karen Walker-Bone
Current NHS advice for people with lower arm pain is to rest. However, our research showed that people who were advised to remain active were significantly less disabled by their symptoms after six months, as compared to those who were told they had an injury and needed to rest.
The study has potential to change healthcare policy and practice in this area, preventing thousands of people from starting a journey of sickness absence which it can be difficult to come back from.
We know once you start taking time off work for four weeks or longer, confidence can diminish and your chances of returning to work go down steadily. So research like this which could help to keep people enjoying their working lives is really important.
What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of your Arthritis Research UK funding?
I’d really like to leave a lasting legacy – a long-term commitment to continue research into work and health here in the UK. Every country has a unique set of circumstances, from its welfare and healthcare systems to cultural and social factors, that affect its citizens’ ability to work, so it’s essential we carry on exploring what works best for people with arthritis in the UK.
There are thousands of people who want to be in work, but are stigmatised and pushed out of the workforce when often minor adaptations could enable them to stay in their job. This issue will only become more pressing as we’re expected to work past the age of 65. So ongoing research will help us to support and advise people with arthritis and inform employers and policy makers.
What do you do in a typical day?
I’m not sure any two days are the same in this job. As director I have an overarching view of all the research we are undertaking, as well as supervising five PhD studentships myself.
I also spend a lot of time each day meeting with people that researchers don’t usually get to talk to! The nature of our research means it’s essential to build relationships with a wide range of stakeholders, including employers, trades unions, charities, policy makers and patient groups. We need to find out what the key issues affecting work and health are from every angle, to ensure we’re focusing on what will have the biggest positive impact on the lives of people with arthritis.
What's your greatest research achievement?
My biggest achievement is being part of the team that wrote the bid which secured the Arthritis Research UK funding for our research centre. It was thrilling to be involved in starting something with the potential to make a huge difference to thousands of people.
Why did you choose to do this work?
As a junior doctor it was the fabulous patients I met that inspired me to choose to specialise in rheumatology. I became a doctor to help people, so I thought patient care would be my main focus. However, I soon realised research is a way of making a bigger difference to the lives of more people than you could ever meet face to face in a hospital or clinic. At that stage the idea of research as a way of effecting change grabbed me and I’ve not been able to stop since!
I then chose work and health as my research focus because work disability affects the quality of life of so many people and we need to understand more to be able to change this.
How important is it to you that your work helps people with arthritis?
It’s the reason I get up in the morning. Our research is all about making a difference to the lives of people with arthritis, now and in the future.
What would you do if you weren’t a clinician and researcher?
I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was tiny, so I’ve never considered doing anything other than medicine. But I’ve always loved tennis, so maybe I’d have liked to be a professional tennis player or a tennis coach.
I still enjoy playing tennis and like to go cycling with my husband. My son, who’s 17, plays county cricket for Hampshire, so supporting him keeps our weekends busy during summer.