Veteran engagement panel improving research focus

Community engagement in research is a concept currently gaining ground in health services research with many finding it integral to the success of their projects. And with more federal funding institutions like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) looking for that component in grant proposals, avenues for connecting with communities remain important, though often difficult, to develop.

A recent panel discussion hosted by the UI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (ICTS) introduced attendees to how the VA’s Center for Access & Delivery Research & Evaluation (CADRE) is able to incorporate community engagement into their work.

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About four times a year the Veteran Engagement Panel (VEP) meets for a couple hours to hear two or three different research proposals from CADRE researchers. Anywhere from 8 to 12 panel members—a mix of veterans and CADRE leadership—then ask the investigator questions and discuss how that research might be refined. Stephen Drop, a US Army veteran and member of the VEP, gave one example of an investigator intending to study opioid use. Drop said that the group recommended that the investigator make it clear that OxyContin and similar drugs were considered opiates. This recommendation, the panel agreed, would have the benefit of reducing potential confusion and increasing response.

Practical advice for researchers is not the only benefit the VEP provides. For the veterans who are members, there is also a sense of purpose and mission offered through participation. Drop described his own background as a geologist and how being on the VEP satisfies both the scientist in him and the part of him that was called to serve.

Another member of the discussion, Aaron Scherer, PhD, associate in General Internal Medicine, shared his perspective as one of the investigators who brought his research project to the VEP. “It was great to be in a roomful of people interested in the research without any agenda.” As a result of his experience with the VEP and the group’s questions and advice, Scherer incorporated a greater amount of patient-centered design into his K01 application to the NIH’s National Institute on Aging.

Kenda Stewart Steffensmeier, PhD, is an anthropologist and CADRE researcher and serves as the VEP’s liaison with the research group. She distinguished what the VEP does from qualitative data collection, such as interviews or focus groups. The veterans are there to provide feedback on the research process itself. “They are considered colleagues not subjects,” she stressed. Though the panel is still gaining in exposure, the group’s demographics are diversifying as it strives for age, gender, and racial balances.

IMG_0811smAfter taking some questions from the audience, the discussion panel offered advice to investigators who might want to take advantage of the VEP’s service. ICTS members in the audience pointed out that their organization also offers a Community Engagement Core that can connect investigators with relevant patient and community stakeholders. Stewart Steffensmeier recommended that researchers try to have their aims as clearly defined as possible, while still being open to adaptation. “Know what your weakest parts are before you go in and we can help you strengthen them,” she said.

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