A study about students, by students

UIC students and faculty team up to study demographics, health risk factors and behaviors, and other factors for health professional students.

Health care professionals have a history of volunteering to participate in research studies that have led to groundbreaking discoveries, such as the use of aspirin to reduce blood clots after heart attacks. A new study at the University of Illinois Chicago is expanding on the concept by involving health care students as researchers, not just participants.

The Health Professional Students at the University of Illinois Chicago Cohort Study, also called the HOLISTIC study, is a survey-based longitudinal research project that follows UIC students in the health sciences over several years. Using groups of research participants, or cohorts, they are measuring demographics, health risk factors and health behaviors, and other factors for health professional students at UIC, said Mary Keehn, assistant vice chancellor for interprofessional practice and education.

“This is really about establishing a way of following students from the time they enter UIC through their education, so we have a better understanding of their health and health behaviors,” Keehn said.

But the project isn’t only enrolling students, it’s being led by them as well. Under faculty mentorship, a team of students was enlisted to assist in designing the cohort study. Along with Keehn, Rashid Ahmed, associate dean of academic affairs at the School of Public Health, and Dr. Jerry Krishnan, associate vice chancellor for population health sciences and professor of medicine and public health, are also faculty mentors.

Students on the research team and in the cohort study represent all seven health sciences colleges at UIC.

“We have about 12 different programs participating which is important. Having clinical and non-clinical programs participating gives us great diversity,” Keehn said.

The student researchers developed the survey questions using tools from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to make it applicable to health professions students.

Ethan Rocha, a third-year physical therapy student, has been working on the HOLISTIC study since its inception two years ago. The opportunity to learn about developing research surveys appealed to him, and he found the project’s interdisciplinary aspect especially valuable.

“The big thing was hearing what each student from each college finds valuable and important when we were developing the study,” Rocha said. “Occupational therapy students wanted to make sure the study was accessible to students with physical or cognitive disabilities, for example. Depending on your health view and education, what you find important is unique. Listening to those perspectives is eye-opening.”

Third-year medical student Daniel Loizzo also appreciates the opportunity to interact with students he normally would not cross paths with to gain new perspectives. Prior to joining the HOLISTIC study, he was working on basic science research. He has enjoyed learning about other kinds of research.

“I’m learning more population-based research which is a great opportunity to look at things on a human level which can be much more complex to understand,” Loizzo said. “With surveys, we can’t completely tap into the minds of people, but with enough data, we can elicit some insights. It has really challenged me to think about what we can pull from the survey data and what we can’t.”

Sunil Dommaraju, also a third-year medical student, was an original member of the student research team. He had been emailing his professors and asking for research opportunities. He received a response from Krishnan, who originally proposed the idea of using health sciences students as study participants at UIC.

While the original intent of the project was to survey students on campus for other health studies, it evolved to focus on the students themselves. Now, there are several domains they are trying to study, Dommaraju said.

The survey asks students about their demographics, employment, race, income and housing, as well as health status, health-related behaviors, chronic health conditions, mental health and access to health care. Students are also asked about tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use, as well as exercise, diet, immunizations and adverse childhood experiences. The first cohort also was asked about attitudes around COVID-19 vaccination.

The survey takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete, with 140 questions — some of which do not apply to everyone.

A research paper with findings from the first completed cohort study, which included participants recruited in 2021, has been submitted for publication and is available as an online preprint titled “Rationale and design of the Health Professional Students at the University of Illinois Chicago (HOLISTIC) Cohort Study.”

And, Dommaraju said the College of Medicine is already using data from the study to inform mental health resources for students. He added they plan to study the cohorts for a minimum of three years with follow-ups and additional questions. The study will track students beyond graduation and into the workforce, following alumni as they begin their careers and may extend further into the future.

“It’s important that we spend the time to understand the health of health professionals. If we are going to take care of our patients, it’s important that we ourselves are healthy and have healthy behaviors — it will impact the health of those we are serving,” Dommaraju said.

The HOLISTIC study is now recruiting students to be a part of the next cohort, either as participants or as part of the research team.

Students interested in being part of the research team can apply by filling out the HOLISTIC Liaison Interest Form. Applicants should be prepared to spend at least six hours a month on the project and to assist with study planning, consult regarding recruitment methods and enroll classmates. Students will also have the opportunity to co-author papers that are published from this study’s findings.

Students eligible to participate in the survey will receive an email that will include a link to participate in the survey. Or, interested students may also email holistic@uic.edu for a link to the survey.

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