Closing the Gaps Between Research and Real Life with Data and Storytelling

Informatics can help researchers shape the creation and implementation of evidence-based healthcare policies.

Research tells us that everyone in hospitals — from doctors to patients to visitors —  should be washing their hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs. “But there is still a huge problem with it — and it’s not because the doctors and nurses don’t know that,” says Beth Prusaczyk, PhD, who recently joined the Center for Population Health Informatics (CPHI) at the Institute for Informatics (I2) as research faculty. Prusaczyk is working to eliminate these gaps between research and real life through her work in implementation science.

“We have a whole bucketload of research and have learned a lot about how to make people’s lives better,” she says. “We just don’t do it. I study the gap between what people should do and real life, and how we can get what we know works into practice.”

From Journalism to Social Work to Big Data

A dozen years ago, Prusaczyk signed on as a research assistant at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Over the next decade, she earned a master’s and PhD in social work at the Brown School, becoming interested in the role of implementation science — specifically, how electronic health record data and administrative data could be used to inform and evaluate the implementation of changes to healthcare policies and procedures.

This fall, she joined the CPHI, specializing in implementation science and hoping to use her varied background to help researchers make their findings more accessible to policymakers and the public. “I’ve returned … and it’s a real Cinderella story,” she says with a laugh. “My journey had a lot of twists and turns.”

Beth Prusaczyk, PhD, recently joined the Center for Population Informatics.

Prusaczyk, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, had grown disillusioned with being a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Illinois when she applied for an entry-level position at the School of Medicine. “When I was hired, I was just the person who made copies — certainly not someone on the faculty track,” she recalls. “I’m so grateful the doctor took a chance on someone like me, who hadn’t taken math classes or science classes.”

Her experience as a journalist proved useful, however, because the investigator needed someone to interview patients who were undergoing kidney dialysis. “I had to go up to them cold while they were being dialyzed, say, ‘Hi, I’m Beth,’ and tell them about a research study. Having been a reporter, that was easy.”

Informatics’ Role in Establishing Evidence-Based Healthcare Policies

Now in her new role, Prusaczyk is leveraging the power of I2 to examine healthcare policies. “As one of the leaders in informatics, I2 knows how to harness big data,” Prusaczyk says. “I do not — I’m a social worker and an implementation scientist. But with the expertise available at I2, we can tap into resources to study how we plan and assess the implementation of evidence-based healthcare policies.”

Her specific interest in transitional care — moving patients from inpatient hospital facilities to their homes — is derived from her interest in social work. By using social network analysis to study discharge planning teams, for example, Prusaczyk was able to identify a hub-and-spoke network of internal communication that was associated with hospitals that reported a lower rate of patient readmission.

“You couldn’t have found those results without social network analysis,” she says. “It’s a different way of looking at things — it’s so much more than just charts.”

Translating Research Findings for Policymakers

Prusaczyk, who was named a 2018–2019 Health and Aging Policy Fellow in the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, has been working under ranking committee member Sen. Bob Casey (D–Pa) in what she calls “an incredible opportunity” to witness how evidence-based policies are made and negotiated.

“It’s given me useful ideas of how research can be translated,” she says. “We as researchers often do a terrible job of talking to anyone else but researchers — we can write and speak in a way that is not understandable or interesting, and yet other people could find it interesting if we found a way to fit it in with how it affects their lives.”

From her findings, Prusaczyk has developed a workshop to help researchers better interact with policymakers — another fortuitous intersection between her early journalism skills and her new career at I2. “Have a compelling story to go with your research,” she says. “Facts are important, but you need to explain why it’s important to people in that senator’s state. Instead of abstract, academic jargon, you’ve got to make it relevant, make it local, explain what it means for their grandma.”

“We as researchers often do a terrible job of talking to anyone else but researchers — we can write and speak in a way that is not understandable or interesting, and yet other people could find it interesting if we found a way to fit it in with how it affects their lives.”