How Federally-Funded Research Has Motivated My Desire to Improve Healthcare

Elizabeth Sierminski

Health care has always fascinated me. Florence Nightingale was my first hero and I was probably about eight when I started reading books on the bubonic plague for fun; but what fascinated me most was the experiences my family and I had with health care.

As a high-level gymnast, I was fortunate to receive comprehensive health care from a very young age. My sports medicine doctor prescribed more than pain relievers and ace bandages. He prescribed strength and conditioning exercises, diet modifications, sports psychologists and even tricks for falling asleep at night.

Outside of sports medicine, I did not always observe this level of care.  

Most notably, when I was 13 I accompanied my mom to a wellness visit. In response to her slightly above-recommended cholesterol levels, the physician made two recommendations: (1) a prescription drug and (2) annual liver examinations for the rest of her life to ensure the drug was not causing damage.

My mom thought risking her liver seemed extreme for slightly high cholesterol so she decided to try cutting butter and other cholesterol-dense foods out of her diet first. Her cholesterol levels have been normal ever since and it has always bothered me that her doctor did not recommend these changes instead of, or in addition to, the drug – as my sports medicine doctor would have.

In my junior year at Eastern Michigan University, I took a medical sociology course that critically examined the history of the U.S. health care payment and delivery systems and other issues, such as the prioritization of “sick care” over “wellness care”. I was intrigued that the professor articulated the same issues that made me feel uneasy when I was child. It was then that it became obvious that I was destined for a career in public health.

In December 2017, I will receive a Master of Public Health degree in Behavioral Health Sciences and Health Policy from the University of Pittsburgh. My objective is to utilize my understanding of people to make human-centric improvements to our healthcare system. Thanks to a wealth of federally-funded research studies, I will be able to approach this objective with evidence-based recommendations that are relevant and non-duplicative.

My research has benefitted most from a report on medical errors produced by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). This report led to a $23 million grant initiative funded by AHRQ to provide funding to hospitals willing to demonstrate the efficacy of administrative overhauls designed to help them (1) react to medical error in a more patient-centric way and (2) effectively investigate medical errors so they do not reoccur.

Without federal grants, hospitals would not be able to adopt systemic error-reduction strategies, like the ones implemented during the AHRQ demonstration project. Health systems cannot take on the financial burden of systemic overhauls without federal support.

Sustained and robust federal funding for AHRQ and other federal health research agencies is crucial to a safer, more patient-centric healthcare system; and to launch the public health careers of young students like me. 

Elizabeth Sierminski is a Research!America Communications Intern. 

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Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.
Abraham Lincoln