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Computer monitor displaying a photoshopped image of Katelyn Balchin in front of her internship placement location, Optum Healthcare.

From Las Vegas to Newfoundland, virtually: Health Quality internships go online this year

Like many graduate students over the past year, Health Quality (HQ) Programs doctoral student Katelyn Balchin found her research plans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally intending to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada in 2020, as part of an internship opportunity with Optum Healthcare, instead Katelyn and the Optum team had to get creative with how they virtually connected to complete their projects.

“COVID has made the placement more challenging” admits Katelyn, “however I still managed to stay connected with the clinical team and develop relationships that will help me with my thesis work.”  

For learners in the PhD in Health Quality (PhDHQ) program, the HQRS 904 internship course is one of the most unique features of the degree. Internship placements like Katelyn’s are designed to provide an opportunity to apply research and theory on quality improvement in a practical environment. Usually completed over the first summer in the program, learners work with their chosen organization—using a combination of on and off-site research collaborations—to develop a project that also supports their own graduate research. Frequently they even have the opportunity to implement their projects on a larger, long-term basis at the end of the internship. In the past, learners have travelled widely across Canada and even internationally to complete the experiential learning course, working with groups like the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association, World Health Organization, National Health Services Scotland, and the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

Optum care is owned by UnitedHealth, one of the largest insurance companies in North America. Katelyn’s placement is with a project in Oncology, directly related to her thesis work in virtual care. She is working with lead clinicians and administrators to implement a nurse-led Oncology virtual clinic for patients who are discharged from hospital. Katelyn intends to bring this experience back to The Ottawa Hospital, where she is currently working full-time as a Business Leader in addition to completing her degree. The project will benefit patients by connecting them to their specialty providers during the sometimes-challenging transition away from the hospital care setting, but Katelyn also hopes primary care providers will feel that their patients are better supported to be discharged home knowing that Optum care has this virtual follow up support available. Although the current implementation of this project will only apply to their Las Vegas cancer centres, the plan is to roll this project out throughout the United States, to all UnitedHealth facilities in the future.

“I think this internship has given me a valuable network of people who I can stay connected with throughout my career,” says Katelyn, reflecting on her placement. “This experience has broadened my expertise in this area, and has shown me a different healthcare system, including some of the unique challenges that are faced within it, given how the American system is funded.”

PhDHQ learners' reflections on their research internship experiences

Madison Robertson

My internship was with Eastern Health Long Term Care in St. Johns, Newfoundland. For this placement, I completed an analysis of emergency room visits from long term care facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador from 2016-2020. We investigated the characteristics of different long term care facilities emergency room visits, and the impact of the Advanced Care Paramedic Pilot Program that was implemented in 2019. Along with my internship supervisor at Eastern Health, I was able to put together a report and present it to a group of researchers, doctors, and Eastern Health managers to discuss changes that could be made to reduce the number of unnecessary emergency room visits from long term care facilities. COVID-19 impacted my internship because I was unable to travel to Newfoundland and do the research in person. I was therefore required to complete the research from Kingston instead. Additionally, because of the pandemic, obtaining the datasets and information took a lot longer. Fortunately, we were able to work virtually, and I successfully completed (and enjoyed!) my internship. It was an excellent opportunity to work on a research project in the field that I hope to complete my thesis research in. I think the research I completed in my internship has given me a better understanding of how long term care facilities operate, which has helped me when developing my research proposal for my thesis dissertation. It was also a good opportunity to network with individuals who would be beneficial to connect with during my thesis project, either for recruitment, committee members, or future career opportunities. 

My HQ learning experience, specifically the internship, helped me solidify my interest in research on older adults and long term care. It was a good experience to network with others in the field, which may benefit me as I develop my path in academics and move forward with my future career. Overall, my internship was a great experience to make connections with experts in my field, complete research that pertains to my area of interest, and network with others who are already involved in research on older adults and long term care.

Kayley Perfetto

For my HQRS 904 Internship, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a group of researchers at the Yorkshire Quality and Safety Research (YQSR) Group located within the Bradford Institute for Health Research in Bradford, England. The YQSR was founded in 2007 and brings together clinicians, researchers, and interdisciplinary scholars from the Universities of Leeds, Bradford, and York to improve the quality of care and safety of patients using the National Health Services (NHS). This group supports several programs, and I was able to work with the team in the “PIPS” or Patient in Patient Safety program.

Planning for my internship began in November 2019 and I had originally intended to spend two weeks in May 2020 onsite at the YQSR offices. Unfortunately, COVID-19 changed these plans and after discussions between my supervisor and the team from YQRS, it was determined that the internship could be completed virtually. Utilizing a variety of virtual technologies and a lot of emails, I was able to contribute to two research projects, one of which used qualitative data to understand the experiences of patients with learning disabilities and how these experiences impacted patient safety. The other project was a scoping review, completed as the first phase of a large five-phase study, which explored the current state of involving the patient and family members in serious incident investigations. Both projects are ongoing at this time, and both will be submitted for publication within the next few months.

This internship allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of my substantive area of interest, patient and family involvement in patient safety, knowledge that has been invaluable as I develop my thesis. During my internship, I was able to work alongside and network with some renowned researchers in the field, learn more about their current projects, and hear their perspectives on the direction research in this area is heading. Being part of these two projects, allowed me to consolidate what I learned in my first year Ph.D. courses, gaining an increased understanding of the practical aspects of conducting research.

This internship was possible due to the commitment and collaboration between the team at YQSR and HQ team. When my original plans were unexpectedly altered by COVID-19, both groups worked together to ensure that I was able to continue with and benefit from my internship. For their dedication to ensuring that I had the best experience possible, I offer a heartfelt thank you.