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Villanova Nurses Partner, Linking Academic and Clinical Settings for Science and Health

Dr Susan Birkhoff with research poster and student Sophie Sanchez in uniform
Alumna and scientist Dr. Susan Birkhoff (left) and rising junior nursing student Sophie Sanchez worked together to build a research study as patients with heart failure participated in virtual visits with a nurse in response to their fear of in-person home care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last summer, with the nation in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising junior nursing student and Wilmington, Delaware native Sophie Sanchez didn’t have far to go to expand her horizons. Looking to feed her inherent desire to help people by combining patient care and science, she considered opportunities. Little did she know that the answer was waiting about 20 minutes from home at ChristianaCare in Newark.

That’s where fellow Villanova Nurse Susan Birkhoff ’10 MSN, ’17 PhD, RN is a nurse scientist. “I collaborate closely with clinical and advanced practice nurses to ignite a spirit of inquiry that leads to the identification of clinical practice issues that could be addressed with either research or evidence-based practice initiatives,” she explains.

Sophie learned that the University of Delaware had the Delaware INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) program – overseen in partnership with ChristianaCare’s Value Institute – and decided to apply to be part of the output of this collaborative network of Delaware academic, health care and research institutions. She “felt lucky” to be paired with Dr. Birkhoff with whom she shared the Villanova Nursing experience.  Dr. Birkhoff notes, “This partnership between the INBRE Scholars program and ChristianaCare provides a special opportunity to teach the next generation of scholars about the impact science can have on health care. I had the privilege of teaching Sophie, an undergraduate nursing student, about the research process and how our work generates new knowledge to inform future care delivery systems.”

The timing dovetailed with internal COVID-19 conversations Dr. Birkhoff was having with research and ChristianaCare HomeHealth leadership colleagues about implementing virtual nurse home visits for patients with heart failure who refused in-person care during the pandemic, while simultaneously building a research study. Their partnership yielded a competitive National Institutes of Health and State of Delaware ACCEL Clinical and Translational COVID-19 Rapid Science Grant for their study “Facilitators and Challenges in the Adoption of a Virtual Nurse Visit in the Home Health Setting.”

Dr. Birkhoff acknowledges that the pandemic “created an opportunity to accelerate the transformative work of our organization.” She says, “We needed to be nimble and think creatively about how to conduct research during a time with much uncertainty and fear. Our virtual nurse visit study demonstrated we can do all those things while providing exceptional patient care.”

She worked remotely with Sophie all summer, pitching to and recruiting patients into the virtual nurse visit study.

“I loved that I was able to work directly with patients with heart failure,” says Sophie who joined virtual nurse visits over Zoom with the home health care nurses. After the virtual nurse visit, she went through the informed consent process with them.

Now in data analysis, the group intends to publish the study findings in a home health-focused peer review journal. Dr. Birkhoff explains that Sophie, who helped with manuscript preparation and will be one of the co-authors, “embodies St. Augustine’s principles of truth, unity, and love” with patients and study team members. She was “an independent thinker and problem solver and truly a tremendous asset to our study team,” she shares.

Sophie recognized the exemplary skill and knowledge Dr. Birkhoff possessed, saying her mentor was “an amazing team leader who really demonstrated how to successfully guide a team of nurses through a research project. She allowed me to work and learn from her on all steps of the project.”  

The experience had an impact on how Sophie views her career, which includes a goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. “I think research is something that will fit into my everyday RN life because evidence-based practice guides how I will treat my patients. Maybe one day I will go back to graduate school in order to become a nurse scientist and continue to pursue research.” Sophie adds, “I want to be able to help people and give back in any way possible.”