The Hospitalist Project provides a unique opportunity for students of all ages wanting to pursue a career in healthcare by allowing them to interview patients, which enhances their bedside manner and patient interviewing skills. The program collects clinical data across all hospitalized patients, bringing together faculty members with wide-ranging interests. This has put Dr. Prochaska and his colleagues in a unique position to re-orient current research in the era of the coronavirus. Their extensive database has allowed doctors in the UChicago Medicine family to connect and more efficiently investigate COVID-19 through many lenses such as convalescent plasma, immunologic effects, and hypoxia. Dr. Prochaska’s personal research focus is red blood cell transfusion, a highly relevant topic within the scope of the pandemic, given potential benefits for COVID-19 patients who receive transfusions.
One of Dr. Prochaska’s favorite aspects of the program is the vital role that undergraduates play. The Hospitalist Project employs approximately 75 students during the school year, increasing to upwards of 100 in the summer. Undergraduates have the opportunity to visit hospitalized patients, conduct interviews, and collect data. One of the most valuable parts of the experience is the guidance they receive.
“Sometimes, when undergraduates are visiting these patients, it’s very exciting at first because they get this clinical experience, but they can’t put it into context,” Dr. Prochaska said. “We wanted to give them more enrichment and individual research mentorship, so that they can see a bigger personal return.” This mentorship lasts for as long as students participate in the program; the goal is for students to participate for three or four years, allowing them to use this information for their thesis in their fourth year.
Dr. Prochaska insists that he would not be leading this highly impactful program today without the aspects of his undergraduate experience that are unique to UChicago. He didn’t enter college having a strong interest in clinical research; during his second year, he stumbled upon the opportunity to do research with Dr. Meltzer, his future co-worker of over ten years.
“I didn't realize this at the time, but the undergraduate experience that I had doing clinical research, interviewing patients, learning how to run a clinical research operation, and learning how to run clinical trials and large scale observational studies clearly had this impact on me,” he explained. “I kept coming back to doing similar types of research.”
It was not only the type of research he was exposed to, but the mentorship that he received from Dr. Meltzer and Dr. Arora as an undergraduate that set him on his path.
“They're both in the National Academy of Sciences, and they're two of the most famous health outcomes researchers in the entire world,” he said. “And I was able to work directly with them to learn how to do clinical research, then start asking my own questions. I learned what it meant to have a question and how to take that from a thought to a true hypothesis to developing a study to answer those questions. There's no way I would have ended up in this position today had I not had that experience.”
Ironically, getting bitten by the clinical research bug was accidental; his goal was simply to secure a job as a work-study student, and potentially learn a little about research. “It's very cliché UChicago, but the rigorous pursuit of thoughtful questions, collecting data, and being able to answer those questions—it runs through the four years of time you spend here,” he mused.
Another thread he sees between his undergraduate experience and his current work is the focus on interdisciplinary thinking. Part of the value of the Hospitalist Project is the way in which it connects clinicians and researchers from many branches of medicine and the University, from surgery to pathology to biology.
“At other institutions,” Dr. Prochaska explained, “these connections are geographically and intellectually farther apart. At UChicago, there is this long-standing commitment to faculty working across interdisciplinary lines. That is absolutely a unique aspect to UChicago.”
In March, as the pandemic began to severely affect the Chicagoland region, the Hospitalist Project found itself with a dilemma: how could they continue to engage with their undergraduate assistants remotely? After some brainstorming, the program rewrote their research protocol, giving students the opportunity to call patients, discuss benefits and risks, and obtain informed consent, all from the comfort of their home.
“It was a huge undertaking because it required us to go to the Institutional Review Board, but basically within a few short weeks we were able to change our entire research operations—not just in data collections, but in our ability to support students and allow them to be true participants in these research projects,” Dr. Prochaska said.
Changing their protocol was essential not just for the spring, but for the future of student participation as well. “We are now full steam ahead for the summer,” he said. “Those students are going to have an opportunity to do things like recruit patients with COVID into different trials that we're running. They're going to have the chance to talk to COVID patients about the symptoms, how they're feeling, what's going on while in the hospital, and also call them after they've left the hospital.”
Continuing to allow undergraduates to participate during the pandemic has been vital because, as Dr. Prochaska explained, “there’s no other place in the country that allows undergraduates to do things like this.”
As far as advice for current undergraduates, Dr. Prochaska encourages students to take the time to enjoy the University’s wide-ranging opportunities. During his walks around campus with his dog, he reflects on the chances that he didn’t fully appreciate at eighteen years old.
“They really have the world at their fingertips; they're all extremely lucky and they're all going to be successful in whatever they choose,” he said. “I encourage them to just pause, take it in, be proud of what they’ve done, and know that it’s going to be okay. These opportunities are really unique, and they’re going to miss them the moment that they leave.”
As for the UChicago tradition that he misses most? That would be Monday night wing night at The Pub on campus.