When you hear “research,” you may think of test tubes and microscopes. But at Atrius Health’s Center for Clinical Research, it means taking a scientific approach to improving patient care.
“We help measure and evaluate not only the way care is provided but the quality of care that’s provided,” says John Zambrano, M.D., Medical Director for the Center for Clinical Research. “One is really aimed at doing things better, and the other one is really aimed at assessing whether or not that thing that we’re doing in the practice is actually making an impact on our patients.”
The Center for Clinical Research strives to improve the already high standard of care patients receive at Atrius Health. Whether streamlining the workflow within care teams or structuring programs to improve the prescription of cutting-edge approaches and treatments, clinical research employs evidence-based evaluation to validate programs that bring the patient experience to the next level.
Unlike at large academic centers, the primary job of clinicians at Atrius Health is to see patients. Because of this, many clinicians don’t have expertise in framing and conducting research projects. But occasionally, as clinicians go about their practice, they’ll notice certain gaps in care that need to filled, or they will wonder if a certain approach to treatment could be optimized.
That’s when they turn to the Center for Clinical Research. The clinical researchers at Atrius Health know how to write grants, frame research questions, and conduct experiments that will yield scientifically rigorous results.
“For example, there is an endocrinologist who is working on improving testing for osteoporosis in patients who have had a fracture, what’s called a fragility fracture, which is basically an injury out of proportion to the event—so, if somebody falls from standing and breaks a bone,” says Dr. Zambrano.
It may seem like a simple case of cause and effect. But it could also be a sign of osteoporosis. Atrius Health clinical researchers have helped the physician write a grant proposal that would fund the hiring of a care coordinator dedicated to looking through patients’ charts for such red flags. If necessary, the coordinator will call the patient in for an appointment with a clinician to discuss the possibility of osteoporosis.
Dr. Zambrano and team also helped with the grant proposal for an additional centralized service focused on incorporating a new, more effective class of blood thinners into patient care to complement the existing service that focuses on more traditional blood thinner medications. They have received grant funding, and now the clinical researchers are helping clinicians frame questions and create tests to assess the impact it has on patient care.
The Center for Clinical Research also acts as a resource for leadership at Atrius Health. Members of the executive team work with the clinical researchers to make improvements within the practice—for example, assessing care teams within internal medicine.
Care teams—or the nurse practitioners, nurses, and medical assistants that support the care provided by a primary care physician—play a significant role in Atrius Health’s dedication to seamless patient care.
“Care teams make sense because they alleviate the burden from clinicians of having to do all of the administrative work that comes along with patient visits,” says Dr. Zambrano. “It’s better for patients as well because now you have a team of folks who are invested in your health, not just one clinician who’s shouldering all of the different aspects of care.” Dr. Zambrano and team are helping the central internal medicine department develop metrics to track how well care teams work together and identify any areas of improvement.
Throughout 2019, clinicians at Atrius Health worked on 26 ongoing projects that have been successfully funded by grant applications. These projects represent a total of $6 million in grant money to Atrius Health over their lifetimes.
But not all projects are the right fit for grants. In another important function, the Center for Clinical Research supports clinicians in answering unfunded research questions. In 2019, they helped clinicians progress in 27 projects that didn’t receive funding from outside sources—from programs meant to validate processes within the clinic to projects proposed by medical or other graduate students.
Often, Atrius Health clinical researchers will collaborate with the practice’s other cutting-edge programs. In all cases, the researchers act as both support and resource, helping clinicians frame questions through a research lens to make sure the results are in line with the highest scientific standards.
Looking to the future, they are developing partnerships with outside organizations such as the Boston VA Medical Center and Google’s Verily to strengthen existing skills and increase expertise. And Dr. Zambrano hopes the practices they’ve validated at Atrius Health will spread across the country to ensure high-quality care for patients everywhere.
All of these initiatives are an important addition to traditional clinical research, which usually focuses on testing new medications or treatment protocols. Atrius Health takes a more care-based approach.
“Our goal is to improve the way we provide care and improve on the quality of care that we provide,” says Dr. Zambrano. “And, if we can provide that service on a regular basis to the practice, then patients benefit because they will be receiving a high level of care that has strong evidence behind it.”
To help support Atrius Health’s vision of transforming care to improve lives, please consider a donation to the Atrius Health Foundation. The Atrius Health Foundation and Atrius Health are non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations.