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Big Data Helps Shape Patient Care: Nursing scientists use large-scale research for outsize results

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has rallied behind healthcare workers—to both protect and support this critical community that continues to save lives in the face of personal danger. Now more than ever, it’s essential to understand how this workforce of nurses, doctors, and other indispensable personnel can be more effective through scientific research.

Research for the Moment

For over 30 years, the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research (CHOPR) at Penn Nursing has been hard at work scaling up rigorous research for this moment—to understand how nursing affects patients and health systems, with the goal of improving and saving lives.

At CHOPR, founder and director Dr. Linda Aiken leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists and PhD students who use objective evidence to communicate findings to healthcare providers, the media, and the general public. The CHOPR team’s work has resulted in scientific breakthroughs in areas like understanding the link between the number of clinical nurses and patient deaths, the real cost of 12 hour nursing shifts, and the impact of nursing education—and not just experience—on patient satisfaction and hospital costs.

CHOPR has also been at the forefront of training the next generation of nurse scientists through the Hillman Scholars Program in Nursing Innovation. The integrated program accelerates Penn juniors from a BSN to a PhD, three years after completing their undergraduate degree. Funded by The Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation, over 70 new nurse scientists have graduated from the program to date.

“Nurses are a crucial link between patients and an unwieldy healthcare system,” said Ahrin Mishan, executive director of The Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation. “Dr. Aiken’s team at Penn Nursing is uniquely positioned to influence both research and policy, which is why we invest in their work.”

Fueled by Philanthropy

As the quest to better understand COVID-19 continues to impact healthcare, CHOPR and similar research centers will grow in significance. There is a vital need for researchers to make sense of the complexities that result from global disruption. The CHOPR team is currently using big data—collecting and analyzing huge amounts of information—to discover links between nursing and patient results. Further funding is needed, however, to accelerate the pace of this work and to quickly allow the findings to be translated into action that can save lives.

CHOPR is the first—and one of the few programs of its kind—to be teaching nurses how to strategically utilize big data.”Dr. Linda Aiken, CHOPR Founder and Director

Dr. Aiken has made a personal donation to support CHOPR’s work by matching contributions from other donors up to $100K. A primary goal for the Center is to secure additional financial support to hire social statisticians to train CHOPR’s PhD students. This training would provide students with quantitative tools—skills that nurses are rarely taught but critically need in the research world—to translate study results into practical knowledge for nurses, doctors, and patients.

“Very few places can match the intellectual firepower and real-world savvy at CHOPR,” said Mr. Mishan of the Hillman Foundation. “We should all focus on the cultivation and support of nurse scientists today.”

For more information on how to make a gift to support CHOPR and Penn Nursing, contact Nadina Deigh, Vice Dean of Institutional Advancement at or 215-746-6184.

NOTE: this article originally appeared on The Power of Penn site on March 27, 2020.