Researcher spotlight: Melissa Northwood
Aug 10, 2022
Before joining the School of Nursing in November 2020 as an assistant professor, Dr. Melissa Northwood worked as a nurse for more than 20 years in clinical settings providing care for older adults. Today she continues to work to improve care for those patients -- but through her research.
“My research has been informed by the challenges I faced in clinical practice with older adults and their caregivers,” Northwood says. “I have been doing research with clinicians and other providers and older adults to better understand how we can function as an integrated system, making sure that both the health care system and the services available in the community are all working together in a coordinated way to support older adults. To do that, I have a few different goals. The first is understanding in a wholistic way the needs of older adults and caregivers in aging well in the community. I use that information to work with health and social care providers to design new ways of supporting and approaching the care that is centred around older adults’ goals and the supports that they need.”
An important part of this work is ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language and having access to the same patient information. “One way I’ve been working on this is through implementing standardized geriatric assessments tools and looking at using self-report where older adults can share information about what matters to them,” she says.
In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, Northwood was the lead investigator on a study funded by Regional Geriatric Program Central, which is affiliated with McMaster University. (Northwood, M., Heckman, G., Didyk, N., Hogeveen, S., & Nova, A. Mobilizing Specialized Geriatric Services to Identify and Triage Older Adults at Risk due to COVID-19 Pandemic Social-Distancing Practices. $14,838. 2020-2021.)
Northwood’s research team partnered with Specialized Geriatric Services (SGS) in Waterloo-Wellington. During the first year of the pandemic, the geriatrician at SGS had to operate remotely over the phone and some video conferencing. The research team asked the geriatrician to use a tool called The Check Up with her clients. The Check Up was developed by interRAI, an international network of clinicians and researchers that develops and maintains patient assessment tools.
“The purpose of our study was to implement this standardized tool in the geriatrician’s practice during the pandemic so she could remotely assess her patients. Because of the nature of these instruments, they are used in clinical assessment and care planning for the individual, but they also can also provide a picture at the program and system level. The geriatrician assessed almost 200 of her patients during the first year of the pandemic using this tool. She was able to quickly determine who needed more urgent assessment or hospital care, for example. It also helped her figure out with her clients priorities for care planning. Once they completed this self-report, right away she could see if a client had pressing issues around their cognition, or falls, or if they were lonely or depressed or having difficulties taking their medication. At the same time, the geriatrician was able to see a picture of all the clients she had served over the past year and their common concerns. That was the first time she had access to that kind of program-level data about her clients in her whole career. That was also useful in helping the program with planning.”
The organization found the Check Up tool to be highly beneficial. As a result of this study, the tool was picked up and implemented in other services in the Waterloo region. “It is another pandemic recovery measure. It was used to look at all the people in Waterloo-Wellington who were on the wait list for specialized geriatric services and then to connect them to the right support.” One of the advantages of this tool is that older adults can spend less time repeating their story if everyone in their care circle has access to the information in this standardized output.
When asked about advice she would offer to budding researchers, Northwood reflects on her own experience working with interdisciplinary teams over the years. “I really enjoy having health care providers, community support care providers, researchers with different perspectives who are trained in policy or epidemiology, and older adults themselves as part of the research team. That way, we can get a full picture of what the challenge is and decide how to approach it as a team. My advice is to make friends with people with different perspectives and skill sets. Maintain your connections from your clinical practice so that you are always connected to the practice world even if you’re not practicing yourself, so you know what the pressures are. Be intentional about making and keeping those connections,” she says.