On a normal weekday afternoon, Amy Tronnier, a fourth-year MD student at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), might be studying in the library or on her clinical rotations in the hospital. Instead, these days, she’s culling information on COVID-19 patients, reviewing records, and extracting data to help GW researchers learn more about the mysterious virus.
Her volunteer work is part of a registry of information on GW Hospital patients suffering from the novel coronavirus, capturing data on demographics, medical history, treatments, and more. Researchers across the GW medical enterprise are using the information to learn more about a virus that continues to create more questions than answers.
“By contributing to our ever-expanding and evolving knowledge-base as it pertains to COVID-19, my hope is that our collective efforts will have a direct impact on future patients,” Tronnier said. “I see the opportunity to assist with creating this COVID registry, and working to answer research questions relevant to the care of patients impacted by this disease, as one of the many ways to help.”
The registry started as a kernel of an idea, formed by David Yamane, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine and of anesthesiology and critical care at SMHS, as he quarantined at home early on during the outbreak, unable to go on a previously planned vacation.
He was on the phone with Ivy Benjenk, MPH, RN, research coordinator in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at GW Hospital, and mentioned a desire to get internal review board (IRB) approval for a registry of COVID-19 patient characteristics and outcomes. Benjenk asked if he had a specific research question he wanted answered; he didn’t, but he knew that questions about COVID-19 were on the rise, and a trove of data could help to get some of them answered.
Yamane wasn’t the only one with the idea for a registry. Requests for similar studies swarmed the IRB office, and a decision was made that because the proposal from Yamane and Benjenk was already in the works, they would be put in charge of a GW registry. Now almost every department at GW Hospital is on board, from the intensive care unit and the surgery department to the emergency department and OB-GYN. The registry also was made a success with the support of Eric Heinz, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at SMHS, as well as the hard work from the GW Hospital IT team.
In addition to Tronnier, almost 50 other MD and post-baccalaureate student volunteers are assisting with the data collection. Students from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW (Milken SPH) also will be brought in to help better cull the information.
“We’ve divided these very enthusiastic students into teams, each responsible for different categories of characteristics,” explained Benjenk. “Each team has a resident lead who helps supervise the students and fields questions. We have a team looking at demographics, a team that looks at intubation and ventilator settings, a team looking at the medications each person is receiving, a team looking at what happens with patients in terms of outcomes, along with many others.”
The information is de-identified and reviewed through the electronic medical record. The data won’t just be used by faculty researchers, but for student-led research as well. “We’re encouraging all of the students participating to submit a research proposal,” Benjenk said.
The students will get a de-identified data set from which they can develop a research question. They’ll work with a student from Milken SPH on data analysis.
“Along with supporting research in general, one of our end goals with all of this is for the students to get abstracts out of it, and during next year’s GW Research Days, we hope to have many student abstracts featured,” Benjenk said.
Being involved in this kind of research project has been an incredible experience for fourth-year MD student Pranav Kaul, who noted the importance of the opportunity to work with his peers, as well as GW Hospital residents and attending physicians, on generating research proposals.
“COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, and our understanding of it is constantly evolving with new research,” he said. “I believe strong scientific evidence will help us to better understand and ultimately control this virus. To be able to contribute to that body of work, even in a small way, is extremely meaningful.”