Celebrating Research Excellence

July 12, 2012

Kaiser Permanente’s Elizabeth McGlynn, PhD, was recently awarded the 2012 AcademyHealth Distinguished Investigator Award, which recognizes individuals who have made a significant and long-lasting contribution to the field of health services research. Prior to joining the team at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Effectiveness & Safety Research, Dr. McGlynn contributed to studies that changed our understanding of U.S. health care, like the landmark 2003 study “The Quality of Health Care Delivered to Adults in the United States.” This study established that, on average, American adults receive about half of the care recommended.

We had an opportunity to speak with Dr. McGlynn about recognition by her peers, her current role as an investigator and how she sees research shaping the future of health care.

CTH Blog:
Congratulations on receiving AcademyHealth’s Distinguished Investigator Award. How does it feel to be recognized for your work with such an esteemed accolade in the field of research?

Elizabeth McGlynn, PhD:
This really is the top award in my field, so I am delighted to have received it.  It is particularly meaningful to be honored by my peers for my work.  This award recognizes a body of work over a period of time as well as leadership and mentorship.  All of these aspects of my career are important to me, so the recognition is very special.

CTH Blog:
What excites you most about the work that you do?

McGlynn:
I get excited by working on problems that are important and by finding ways to help decision makers understand what we have learned so that improvements are possible.  In our field, we do a lot of work that describes and quantifies problems.  Sometimes it seems like we are proving the obvious.  But if people don’t think that a problem exists, there is no impetus to solve it.  I believe that quantifying the size of the quality chasm in this country was essential in order to stimulate the development of solutions to ensure that every patient, gets the right care at the right time, every time, no matter what.

CTH Blog:
How do you see the field of research evolving in the future?

McGlynn:
Health services research—the type of research that I do—is by its nature multidisciplinary, and the importance of including multiple disciplines has only increased over time.  I don’t think you can really take on solving complex human problems from the perspective of a single discipline.  The latest challenge for our field is to find a way to productively engage patients and other “stakeholders” in the work we do.  This requires that we learn to include the perspectives of the people we are trying to help.  We also have to find ways to make sure that this goes beyond tokenism, that the engagement is meaningful.  The other critical road ahead is to find more effective ways of translating what we are learning into action—in policy, in the delivery of health services, and in what individuals can do to maintain and improve their health.  I think increasingly we are going to have to demonstrate that the research we are doing, particularly research supported by public funds, is translating into improvements in health and well being.

CTH Blog:
What is an area where you think research needs to focus to make the biggest impact on the health of our nation?

McGlynn:
I think we really need to take a step back from our dependence on the health service delivery system and understand how to engage individuals and communities in making health a priority.  This is not an easy undertaking but most of what determines “health” happens outside of the delivery system.  There are complex reasons that living healthy lifestyles seems hard.  I feel that way myself.  But I think as a nation we really need to focus our energies “upstream” on how we can stay healthy rather than how we can fix problems once they occur.

CTH Blog:
Can you talk a little about your current research projects?

McGlynn:
My center is conducting a series of projects right now that share a common commitment to demonstrating how organizations can become learning systems.  The essence of this work is to identify questions that come from clinical and operational leaders about how best to deliver care to a particular group of patients.  We want to try to answer those questions and then to put what we learn into action.  The projects themselves include questions related to care for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, pain, osteoporosis, and children with complex needs—in other words, some of the major health problems that face the country.  While I expect the individual projects to yield useful insights, the greater contribution will be in how we can more quickly and effectively answer questions and make effective changes in the delivery system.

CTH Blog:
Tell us about evidence-based medicine and the role of research in it.

McGlynn:
Evidence-based medicine is designed to use the best available information to make decisions about approaches to diagnosis and treatment.  There are a number of tools that have been developed to make practicing evidence-based medicine easier.  Some of the tools involve ways of more systematically summarizing what has been learned across a large number of studies.  Other tools involve helping structure decision making by doctors and patients to arrive at the best path for a particular patient.  The sheer volume of research that is being published makes it impossible for physicians to both know about every single study that has been done and to figure out whether the latest findings suggest that the physician should do anything different in practice.  So we need ways of putting the information together and making it easier for physicians and patients to understand so that care is based on the best of what we know.  Research contributes at every step of this process, from producing the new knowledge that is being published, to summarizing the evidence, to developing effective ways of supporting individual decision making.

CTH Blog:
What advice would you give a current college student who is interested in pursuing a career in health care research?

McGlynn:
My stepdaughter is a college student who is thinking about a career in research, so I’ll tell you what we’ve talked about.  First, look for opportunities to get involved in research projects at your school or in your area.  She has had an opportunity to be part of research at her college and is doing an internship this summer that gives her an opportunity to see a different type of research.  Second, to direct research projects you generally need an advanced degree, like a PhD, and those programs take time and may require some students to take loans.  So you should be pretty sure that this is something you really want to do.  Third, my stepdaughter is also talking to people who are doing the type of research she would like to do and trying to understand their perspective on the field, the opportunities that are likely to be available in the future, what it takes to get into the right programs, and what skills will be required to succeed.  So she is doing research on what it means to be a researcher!  I am biased, but I think health-related research is among the most critically important work that needs to be done, and we need the very best minds in the country working on the myriad challenges that lie ahead.  So I hope this is a career path that will be attractive to many.

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