Feed a Discipline (With Research Questions): Become Shark Bait

Winston R Liaw, MD, MPH

Winston R Liaw, MD, MPH

Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought.

  • Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Each year, my colleague, Alex Krist, and I sit down with our Virginia Commonwealth University family medicine residents to brainstorm potential research topics for their scholarly activities, and each year, we encounter a similar series of events. Initially, there is silence (frequently prolonged and often deafening) followed by musings about their lack of research experience. Then, a brave soul offers a question that has been plaguing her. A classmate asks a similar but related question. The conversation reminds a third resident about a different question he always wanted to answer. By the end of the hour, we have a list of fascinating, important questions.

  • Do calorie counters improve patient outcomes?
  • Why do our patients use the emergency room next door when our walk in clinic is open?
  • Has the new patient portal affected the volume and type of phone calls we receive?
  • Are patients at the community health center interested in doing video visits?

Your STFM Research Committee thought that family medicine residents and faculty nationwide may similarly have pressing questions to answer but lack the means to do so. Initially conceived by STFM Research Committee members Tammy Chang and Rob Post, we launched a session at the 2016 STFM Conference entitled: “Shark Tank for Family Medicine: Real-time Feedback for Primary Care Research Ideas”. During the workshop, seven participants pitched research ideas to three “sharks” (well-established primary care researchers). The sharks provided real-time feedback and then selected participants to mentor over the year. For those of you not tuned in to pop culture, our workshop is based on the TV show Shark Tank where contestants pitch business ideas to established entrepreneurs and winners receive funding and mentorship.

At the 2016 session, we were impressed by the creativity of our STFM colleagues. They sought to answer a wide range of questions, including:

  • How frequently do concussions go undetected? (Leslie Rassner)
  • How do we measure resiliency in trainees? (Kate Rowland)
  • What is the prevalence of loneliness in our clinics? What can we do to address it? (John Frey)

As with most research, the results varied. Some participants appreciated the accountability, structure, and new relationships.

“Shark-tank provides an accountability that takes a professional commitment and adds personal accountability. I think that having professionals voluntarily mentor and support your efforts (Especially as they are not at [the same institution]) makes the oomph even stronger…” 

“It helped in a couple of ways – made me be concise about what had been vague in my mind. [T]he format was fun and not all that stressful. [A]nd the connections that folks made for/with me have been great.”

Others have had difficulty getting their ideas off the ground. Common barriers included a lack of protected time, analytic support, and technical expertise among the participants and the sharks.

If you missed out on Shark Tank in 2016, you’re in luck. Shark Tank has been renewed for another season and will take place at the 2017 STFM Annual Spring Conference in San Diego, on Sunday, May 7 from 3-4 PM. To participate, please indicate that you are interested during the registration process (under the Sunday “Additional Events”) or email Melissa Abuel (mabuel@stfm.org). We will be asking for a short description (100 words or less) of your research idea. Prior research experience is not required, just an idea. To transform primary care and primary care education, the discipline needs you! Turn your ideas into action!

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