Improving Health Care Through Technology and Research

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A College of Arts & Letters faculty member is helping establish a research presence at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing while focusing on enhancing patient care through the use of information technology.

Dawn Opel, Assistant Professor of Digital Media and User Experience in MSU’s Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures, is one of the first two Research Fellows named by the MSU/Sparrow Center for Innovation and Research and is leading a study to help Sparrow clinicians work together with community legal and social services partners using an online tool for care coordination.

As part of her fellowship, Opel is doing research around a software system developed by Elder Law of Michigan that networks legal, health, and social service organizations in an effort to coordinate the services older adults receive.

woman standing in windowed hallway with hands on wood railing
Dr. Dawn Opel

“Instead of just handing someone brochures as they leave the doctor’s office, this system connects those people with community organizations across Michigan, so they don’t have to make those calls themselves. The referrals are automatic,” Opel said. “The software also has a tracking component that shows the flow of information and use of services. This allows providers and organizations to see what services the patient has taken advantage of and where they are in the system. It closes a loop on a lot of lost communication.”

Elder Law built the software, but hasn’t tested it in a clinical health care setting, which is where Opel comes in. She has been collecting data and doing a pilot study on the software’s efficacy at Sparrow Hospital.

“It’s a really exciting project, one that could be used by a lot of different people,” Opel said. “And as a professor in the humanities, I’m excited to serve as a node between all these community organizations to better coordinate health care and community services for more people in mid-Michigan. The goal is to use the data I’m collecting to apply for larger grants to roll out this software statewide.”

Building a Research Community

Opel’s yearlong fellowship with the MSU/Sparrow Center for Innovation and Research began in January. The goal of this new program is to improve health care service delivery and transform care through innovative approaches while also training fellows to become leaders in the research and medical industry.

“The fellowship is mutually beneficial,” Opel said. “It is enhancing my skills as a researcher, and at the same time, it benefits Sparrow to have an active research presence from MSU at the hospital.”

Not only is the fellowship creating a culture of research at Sparrow Hospital, it also is reaching beyond the hospital walls.

“We are interested in building a research community around health care service innovation in the Lansing area,” Opel said. “Sparrow is a community hospital that serves the needs of the Lansing community, and Michigan State researchers like me want to partner to improve health care in Michigan. My fellowship is designed to encourage research collaboration for the benefit of patients here in mid-Michigan.”

“My hope with all of these projects is that the research arm that I contribute can be used as the basis for a grant to be able to do more good work.”

As part of the fellowship, Opel has met with people from all over Sparrow – nurses, case managers, doctors, administrators, and IT employees.

“Building those relationships is important to me. It is what drives my research,” she said. “It also is beneficial because they know what I do and being the only person from the humanities is an interesting gateway for what kinds of medical humanities work we can do here in CAL in the future.”

Research Based on Community Needs

Opel is what she calls “an activist researcher.”

“I’m always working in the community and looking for what the needs are and where I can help fill the gaps to make change for the better. That’s where I tend to find the research projects I end up working on,” Opel said. “I’m particularly interested in finding out where MSU can be a benefit to health care providers and patients to improve patient experiences.”

Opel didn’t let much grass grow under her feet when she first moved to East Lansing in August 2016 to join MSU’s College of Arts & Letters. She soon began working on the Clinic Transformation Project at the College of Human Medicine with Bill Hart-Davidson, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Arts & Letters.

“The fellowship is mutually beneficial. It is enhancing my skills as a researcher, and at the same time, it benefits Sparrow to have an active research presence from MSU at the hospital.”

This qualitative workplace study involved six months of observations of workflow practices at MSU’s Family Medicine Clinic, which resulted in recommendations on how to transform service delivery and improve clinical practice.

“Some of the clinical models have been in existence for a really long time and we’re finding that it’s just not working anymore for a variety of reasons,” Opel said. “I like working with people to find out what’s possible and to figure out what can be done to redesign something that is more effective.”

Opel presented the Clinic Transformation Project research at the Human-Computer Interaction International conference in Vancouver in July. The first paper on the project also was published in Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Opel and Hart-Davidson have several other articles in process from this work and continue to work with the project team toward a larger study to test their recommendations for service delivery improvement.

“My hope with all of these projects is that the research arm that I contribute can be used as the basis for a grant to be able to do more good work,” Opel said. “I’m really working with that structure for every single project I do.”

Finding a Research Home

Opel came to MSU after receiving her Ph.D. from Arizona State University and her juris doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I was looking for a place where I could be in a rhetoric and composition program, but also work on health care communication. That was one of the things that drew me to MSU. I knew there would be a place for my work here,” Opel said. “I also knew MSU, and particularly CAL, had a commitment to the type of collaborative and community engaged work that I do. Engagement and collaboration are rewarded here and part of the ethos of what we do in the humanities.

“The Critical Diversity in a Digital Age initiative also is very well aligned with the work that I do. I share the same set of values and vision for the humanities. I feel very fortunate to be a part of that. This place is unlike any other that I saw that was doing work like that.”