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Dr. Stacey Crane and Dr. Meagan Whisenant

Symptom Science

Firsts in Nursing Research

When a patient hurts, a nurse is usually the first health care professional to know about it.

Recognition of the critical role nurses play in assessing and alleviating symptoms is opening doors for nurse scientists, including two Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth assistant professors who achieved research milestones in 2020.

Meagan Whisenant, PhD, APRN, and Stacey Crane, PhD, RN, are both developing systems for monitoring and managing cancer symptoms. In May, Whisenant became the first nurse scientist to receive a First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Member Award from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Crane followed suit in July, achieving a nursing first when she received a St. Baldrick’s Foundation Scholar award.

Whisenant’s focus on developing a routine symptom monitoring and management system for oncology practices is rooted in her own experience as a clinical nurse. She will use her $500,000, five-year CPRIT grant to develop systems for collecting real-time symptom data from breast cancer patients in the outpatient setting at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Nellie B. Connally Breast Center.

“I was that nurse who took all of those phone calls coming from patients,” Whisenant said of her early career. Her research seeks to improve providers’ ability to respond promptly to patients while automatically incorporating symptom data into the electronic health record. “We know nurses need to be doing this, but we don’t know how to integrate it into their workflow. We are going to test different workflows.”

Working at the bedside with pediatric cancer patients and their parents inspired Crane to simplify the process for them to systematically and routinely report symptoms to health care providers. Her two-year, $220,000 St. Baldrick’s grant will help fund a kid-friendly, web-based interface derived from the Pediatric Patient-Reported Outcomes version of the Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events (Pediatric PRO-CTCAE™), an instrument developed through the National Cancer Institute.

“My area of research grew out of my nursing practice and a desire to help alleviate suffering,” said Crane, a certified pediatric oncology nurse. “Having been at the bedside and worked with children with cancer and their families for almost a decade, I saw opportunities where we can do better.”

Research increasingly shows that managing symptoms improves overall survival for cancer patients as well as quality of life, Whisenant noted. It can help keep patients on their treatment schedules and out of the hospital.

“More foundations that traditionally awarded research grants only to physicians are opening up their application processes to PhDs, which creates opportunities for nurse scientists,” Crane said. “Cizik School of Nursing is ideally positioned to foster oncology nursing research because of its proximity to and partnerships with MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas Children’s Hospital.”

“As nurse scientists, we bring a unique perspective to these problems, but we need the collaboration of physicians,” said Whisenant, who is excited about working with leading oncologists who support nursing research. “The Cizik School of Nursing presents a unique environment with a lot of momentum and enthusiasm for moving a research program forward.”

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