Dr. Ann Blair Kennedy '94 creates nationwide virtual Patient Engagement Studio focused on Covid-19 research

Dr. Ann Blair Kennedy ’94 creates nationwide virtual Patient Engagement Studio focused on Covid-19 research

The University of South Carolina CoVIP Studio will aid researchers in the development and dissemination of patient-centered studies on the long-term effects of Covid-19

by Sarah Murphy

When Presbyterian College alum Dr. Ann Blair Kennedy ‘94 first became director of the Patient Engagement Studio( PES), a support team for qualitative research at the University of South Carolina, the thought of conducting PES work in a virtual setting was largely unheard of.

“The patients we had been working with before said, ‘No-no, you can’t build trust virtually,’” says Kennedy, who is also an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. The PES was built to give researchers and clinicians structured opportunities to meet face-to-face with patients, then incorporating the patient feedback into research teams and studies. But when the Covid-19 pandemic struck just as the PES had been awarded a grant to aid diabetes research, Kennedy and her team had no choice but to transition to be completely virtual.

The pivot was a success.

“The virtual format was actually very good for us,” says Kennedy. “Our team no longer needed to drive across the state to recruit patients, and we were able to expand to include North Carolina and Georgia, making it more of a regional panel.”

This success inspired Kennedy and her colleague Nabil Natafgi to take what they learned from the diabetes work and scale up. They wrote a new grant, this time for Covid-19 instead of diabetes, and on a national scale instead of regional. They want to help researchers develop, enhance and disseminate patient-centered studies and evidence regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impacts on certain populations.

Their idea was granted an 18-month, $200K award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to create a COVID-19-Focused Virtual Patient Engagement Studio (CoVIP). Patients were recruited in November 2021, and work began earlier this year.

“These are average people who at some point had Covid and are asking themselves things like, ‘Why me? Why did I get Covid?’” says Kennedy. “We start out with these kinds of questions—we call them wonderings—and by the end of our work, we are able to craft research questions based on what this specific group of people wants to know.” Patients from across the country are taking part in the CoVIP Studio, as well as research partners from Johns Hopkins University, University of South Carolina Big Data Health Sciences Center, Harvard Medical/Beth Israel Medical Center and others.

Outside of aiding in Covid-19 research, Kennedy and her team have their own set of goals for the CoVIP. “Since we’re not meeting in person, we want to know: what are the pieces we need to have in place to help the patient engagement with research teams be meaningful? How can we make sure it’s not just checking a box with the researchers, and how can we show patients that they’re making a difference?” Kennedy’s long-term goal is to expand the use of this model to other populations and health conditions.

Kennedy is a keen observer—an important characteristic for her PES work that she credits to her time spent at PC as a theater major. “I’m able to sit back, take in an environment, and adapt my presentation style, adapt my communication style. All of that really started at PC.”

She is also incredibly motivated to serve others—another trait she says was reinforced at Presbyterian College, where the motto, “While We Live, We Serve.” is such a large part of campus culture.

“It is inherent to my being to live and serve,” says Kennedy. “I really feel that I live that motto in many ways, not only to my professional association, but to the university, to students. I’m here to serve my students, and I’m here to serve my patients. It’s very important to me.”