Baylor Communication Professor Earns Coveted NSF CAREER Award to Study Impact of Technology on Compassionate Communication in Health Care Settings
Ashley Barrett, Ph.D., earns $440,381 grant, the first non-STEM award presented to a Baylor faculty member by the National Science Foundation
By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing & Communications
WACO, Texas (Nov. 3, 2022) – As health care organizations adopt new information technologies, patients and providers alike must adapt to the role technology plays in communication that occurs in both in-person and virtual settings. Now, a Baylor University researcher is studying the impact of these technologies on the communication they facilitate and seeking ways to promote compassionate communication and empathy in these ever-evolving patient-provider interactions.
Ashley Barrett, Ph.D., BA ’07, MA ’09, associate professor in Baylor’s Department of Communication, has earned a highly coveted CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study this on two fronts: to examine how providers innovate their communication practices following advanced technology implementation to achieve compassionate care, and to examine patient perceptions on best providers’ best practices for practicing compassionate communication. Barrett’s research also is focused on the unique communication needs of patients within marginalized health populations such as those falling below the federal poverty level or those for whom English is not their first language.
In addition, the $440,381 grant is a milestone award for Baylor, as Barrett becomes the first faculty member to earn a non-STEM Award from the NSF.
“It is exciting to earn this grant and gratifying that the NSF sees the value in this research,” Barrett said. “We are in an era of patient-centered care in the health service industry and technological growth within organizations, and it’s meaningful to have the opportunity to apply my research to these areas with an overall goal of helping people utilize technology to both practice and receive compassion and empathy.”
CAREER Awards are among the most coveted and prestigious awards presented to early-career researchers. Highly competitive, they provide longer-term funding than many standard research grants, giving recipients the freedom to take their research in new directions. In addition to funding research projects with high scientific merit, NSF CAREER awards support outreach activities that communicate the importance of the work to broad audiences throughout the community.
“It is difficult to win an NSF career award in the social sciences, but Dr. Barrett has done just that,” said Lee Nordt, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Baylor. “It is a testament to her research expertise in health care communications, which also provides an example to others that these prestigious awards are winnable by our growing faculty here at Baylor University as we become part of national conversations on the grand challenges of the day.”
Technology, communication and compassion
Much of Barrett’s prior research focuses on the implementation of AIT in organizations. In health care, examples of these technologies encompass multiple channels of communication, including patient health care portals or electronic health records. In both cases, doctors, nurses and other clinicians use these while visiting or sharing information with the patient. While these channels provide useful information to health care practitioners and patients that can enhance patient care – such as aggregated and standardized patient data – they can present communication challenges that are difficult to navigate as they can become the primary focal point within patient-provider interactions, rather than the patient.
Through the NSF grant, Barrett will build on past research focused on providers’ perceptions by expanding on that work to uncover patient perceptions as well. “Workarounds” – the use of technology in a way that was not intended by designers – also will be a key focus of the study, providing an additional avenue to uncover solutions that benefit the patient-provider relationship, as well as the relationship between technology designers and end users.
Tying it all together, Barrett’s research will focus on using AITs to communicate with compassion and empathy with a focus on patient experience.
“We don’t have as many face-to-face visits anymore, and we know the online sphere isn’t going anywhere. Even in-person, health care providers are simultaneously utilizing electronic records as they see the patient,” Barrett said. “How does the patient feel compassion in that? Do providers notice patients’ enhanced needs to develop relationships of trust in these settings and connect emotionally through empathy? Do they connect cognitively through perspective taking and then respond effectively with verbal and nonverbal responses? How do needs for compassion and communication differ with marginalized health populations? These are some of the questions I am to figure out.”
Comprehensive research methods, local partners
To answer these questions, Barrett will employ a number of research methods, partnering with Baylor Scott & White Health and Waco Family Medicine:
- Video observation of patient-provider communication during medical visits
- Patient surveys inquiring into their medical visit experiences
- Provider interviews centering on perceived patient communication needs and the process of practicing compassion in virtual and in-person settings
- Participation in mandatory communication workshops for health care providers at Baylor Scott & White
Each method will provide data that paints a more complete portrait of communication within and alongside these technologies. For example, as Barrett observes patient-provider interactions during medical visits, she will study providers’ and patients’ exchanges of verbal and non-verbal communication cues as providers simultaneously use technology systems while talking to patients. Provider interviews will provide insights into the challenges of using new technologies and illuminate the use of technology workarounds and their impact.
For patients, surveys will shape their understanding of patient portals and the communication challenges and advantages they provide to patients who use them.
Baylor students are an additional beneficiary of the grant, which will fund the creation of an undergraduate course focused on AIT implementation and communication in health care organizations, through a partnership with Baylor University Libraries.
Bridging gaps in technology and communication
The five-year grant will enable data collection that benefits health care providers and their patients in a number of ways. Barrett will use the data to develop interventions for health care providers at Baylor Scott & White and build continuing education courses at Waco Family Medicine. Additionally, she hopes to focus on gaps in communication between technology developers and the end users of the products they create. These insights will provide insights not currently available through prior research.
“Through this grant, Dr. Barrett has established herself as a national and international authority in the field of health communication,” said David W. Schlueter, Ph.D., professor and chair of communication at Baylor. “She is doing high-impact research that advances the research goals of Baylor with our focus on the signature issue of Health.”
Barrett sees a strong tie between her own work and the Baylor mission, and she seeks to enhance understanding and trust that benefits patients.
“Data and research show that where trust exists in health care relationships, it leads to better health care down the road,” Barrett said. “Patients are more likely to understand their diagnoses or treatment plans and more likely to engage those plans. There are so many positive outcomes to patient-centered and relationship-centered care. We know this type of care is helpful, but do we know how to implement it and to do so in a digital era of increasing online communication? I’m grateful for the chance to seek understanding of these questions and to bring practical strategies to the audiences who can benefit from those answers.”
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