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Published: October 12, 2015

Public Health Seniors Help Drive $23.5 Million Research Grant

There have been times when Jennifer Finney ’16 sat in her car after leaving the clinic where children struggle with debilitating, chronic disorders and found herself in tears.

“It gets to me,” said Finney, of Chicago, IL. “It almost has to in order to urge change. You have to personally connect.”

Finney, Austin MacFarland ’16 and Associate Professor Rebecca Olsen are representing UT in a national effort of 10 leading children’s hospitals in a $23.5 million, three-year grant focused on efficiently coordinating care for children with medical complexities.

“These are children who require a full-time caregiver and are completely dependent,” explained Olsen. They are children suffering with neurological diseases, or who survived near drownings or other injuries. Oftentimes their caregivers aren’t parents or relatives, as many children are wards of the state. “Children with medical complexities are such a vulnerable group, and there is such a need for reform.”

Olsen was asked this summer to serve as the research consultant for BayCare on this grant with Dr. Daniel Plasencia, who directs St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Chronic-Complex Clinic, which is part of the BayCare Heath System, and is one of the 10 hospitals involved in the grant. The clinic is a one-stop-shop for children to get the services they need, rather than a maze of doctor’s offices and therapy centers, which is generally the norm.

Finney and MacFarland are both public health majors with minors in sociology. Finney oversees the qualitative effort, interviewing patients and caregivers and seeing processes functioning on the ground. MacFarland is leading the quantitative team, developing a patient database and connecting technological dots. Together they are helping collect a big picture of what’s working, and what’s not, at the center.

“We are working to improve healthcare for children at a lower cost,” Finney said, explaining the large gap between care and cost. “Six percent of the population (which makes up pediatrics) accounts for nearly 40 percent of the 2013 Medicaid costs.”

MacFarland said the results so far show this kind of customized, full-service care has resulted in the patients’ health becoming more consistent, so they are transitioning out of the clinic.

“This clinic is working,” said MacFarland, of Mexico, NY. “One way we’re lowering cost is by improving health. So it’s a win–win situation.”

He explains that Dr. Plasencia’s center is a pioneer in the field of complex pediatric care and is excited about the potential federal change this grant can instigate by proving with their data that healthcare reform is needed.

Finney and MacFarland oversee several other UT interns and have devoted massive amounts of time and effort to this grant already, driven by a shared passion and belief in the impact their work could have on these children.

“Their situations are so dark; it’s so important for them to see the light,” Finney said. “It’s an area of the healthcare field that needs light, and that’s what motivates me.”

The players in a grant this big are major, Olsen said, and has resulted in several opportunities already.

“Dr. Plasencia could have taken this anywhere, and he called us. I was so honored — this is huge,” said Olsen, who had been volunteering with Plasencia since 2002 out of her own conviction in the center’s work. “We’re rubbing elbows with the who’s who of healthcare quality.”

Such as at the annual conference in Washington, D.C., of the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute last week (of which Olsen is the Florida ambassador), where Finney and MacFarland presented on the status of their research to senior leaders in the field.

The Louisiana Public Health Institute got wind of the research as well, and has invited Olsen to be on its advisory board to help develop Tulane University’s College of Medicine curriculum.

And the hands-on experience? Unparalleled. Take for example the instance where Finney and MacFarland accompanied Olsen to a meeting with BayCare executives to discuss issues surrounding the current research, and Finney and MacFarland were asked just as many questions and held their own. “I would put them toe-to-toe with any Master of Public Health graduate,” Olsen bragged.

“You will not find another undergraduate who has the opportunity to work on something like this — probably even hard to find a graduate student with the opportunity,” Olsen said.

Both Finney and MacFarland want to work in healthcare management after graduating. Purely because of the scale and seriousness of this grant, they have both been in multiple professional settings where this work is confirming their career paths.

“This experience has completely confirmed what I should do with my talents,” Finney said. “It has given me a direction and a purpose — I was made for this.”

Have a story idea? Contact Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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