Proposals sought for EVMS/W&M collaborative research

  • Future collaborators convene
    Future collaborators convene
    Jennifer Mellor, professor of economics and director of William & Mary's Schroeder Center for Health Policy (center), conducts a session at the May 14 retreat that brought together faculty and staff from William & Mary and EVMS to discuss potential areas for collaborative research.
    Photo by Joseph McClain

Faculty and staff from William & Mary joined their counterparts from Eastern Virginia Medical School Tuesday to discuss what might be the most fruitful areas for collaborative research.

The morning-long session at William & Mary’s Sadler Center included a call for faculty from both institutions to work together to submit ideas for specific projects. Jennifer Mellor, professor of economics and director of William & Mary’s Schroeder Center for Health Policy, said that the field for collaborative efforts is wide open, but some areas seem to be particularly ripe for joint inquiry.

“There are a couple of areas in health care delivery science that could take off,” Mellor said during a break in the proceedings. “The William & Mary economics department has a large number of health economists for a department of its size. I think it would be great to pair up some of the economists with some of the clinical researchers to work on some of the issues that were discussed here today.”

Mellor and C. Donald Combs, vice president and dean of the EVMS School of Health Professions, are the “point persons” from their respective campuses who are leading an exploration of potential avenues for collaborative research between the university and the medical school. Their roles were established after due diligence committees at both institutions concluded their investigations in the fall of 2012. Those efforts included a report commissioned by consultant Jordan Cohen, former president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The Cohen report outlined potential areas for W&M/EVMS collaboration, especially suggesting opportunities in the area of health care delivery science.

Combs told the nearly 100 attendees that funding from the state of Virginia and from Sentara Healthcare would support eight projects at around $10,000 each.

The proposals for the EVMS/W&M Collaborative Grant Program are due July 1.  Awards will be announced in mid-July, and the projects are to be completed by mid-October. Combs said he expects that the nature of the projects would help to define the nature of the collaborative effort.

“We have not identified what that effort might be,” Combs said. “That’s what we’re asking you to help us to do.”

He said that the proposal submissions could point the way to one or more focal areas for collaborative success. “The only thing that we absolutely require,” he said, “is collaboration between the two institutions.”

Mellor cited health information technology as another promising area for collaboration. “We’ve got tremendous presence in the Mason School of Business in IT,” she said. “Rajiv Kohli and Chon Abraham have already gotten together with folks at Sentara and done interesting collaborative work.”

Combs introduced a group from Sentara, which he said represents the “special sauce” that could enhance health care research collaborations in the Hampton Roads area. Kurt Hofelich, president of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, gave an overview of the vast Sentara health care system, which includes serving as the primary teaching hospital for EVMS. Kathie Zimbro, director of clinical & business intelligence, and Mary Morin, director of nursing, both explained patient-centered informatics initiatives under way in the Sentara system. Brent Ibata, director of cardiac research and education at Sentara Heart Hospital, gave a rundown of clinical research, much of which could be valuable but hasn't been published in the journals.

"Physicians don't have time to write up research," Ibata said. "They don't become doctors because they're enamored with working with the English language."

The assembled researchers heard presentations on research opportunities in the fields of health services research and health care delivery science from Lisa Simpson, president and CEO of AcademyHealth, and from Ellen Meara of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. Both Simpson and Meara stressed the benefits of collaboration among academic and clinical researchers. Simpson warned the researchers about what she called the “taxonomical turmoil” that permeates the culture of an emerging discipline in which practitioners must parse the differences in the definitions of new and unfamiliar terms such as “health care delivery science” and “health services research.”

Meara concurred, giving a definition for health care delivery science, then noting, “The broad goals—and not the name—are what’s important.”

The broad goals at Dartmouth, she said, are to collaborate across disciplines to find ways to contain health care costs, while raising the quality of health care. Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice have jointly created a Master of Health Care Delivery Science program, which Meara said recently awarded degrees to its inaugural cohort of students this year.

Sentara already is a supporter of the nascent William & Mary/EVMS research collaboration, contributing $100,000, with an additional $200,000 allocated by the state of Virginia. Combs said that the Executive Committee guiding the exploration decided to budget approximately 70 percent of the $300,000 toward faculty support, including the first RFP round announced at the May 14 retreat.

William & Mary Provost Michael R. Halleran and EVMS President Rick Homan gave introductory remarks. Halleran pointed out the intellectual benefits of a multidisciplinary approach to research.

“It always struck me that medical science has been way out in front in terms of multidisciplinary approaches,” he said, “because diseases don’t know that we have academic departments.”

Homan pointed out that health care delivery science is only being studied by a few institutions, creating a wide range of opportunities for institutions willing to get involved.

“Now our job is to get out of the way and find where the neural networks are in this room,” he said.

The retreat was set up to maximize EVMS/W&M connections, neural and otherwise. Attendees were encouraged to include their research interests when they registered to attend the retreat, then they were directed to assigned tables when they picked up their nametags. Combs urged the blended William & Mary/EVMS tables to discuss possible collaborations over lunch.

Mellor said she was pleased to have such a wide disciplinary representation from William & Mary at the session.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do in this event today is to be inclusive, to make this a faculty-focused effort,” Mellor said. “There are faculty here from mathematics, computer science, at least a half dozen other departments in Arts & Sciences, and from the schools of business, law and education, and from VIMS. We want them to talk with people who are not only outside of their discipline, but outside of William & Mary. And who knows where that could go?”