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The professor: Dr. Nancy Dorr, professor of psychology and Saint Rose faculty member since 2001

The alum: Patricia A. Fennell ’79, MSW, LCSW-R, founder and president, Albany Health Management Associates Inc.

The project: Collaborative research on the experiences of chronically ill patients

Patricia Fennell built a robust career researching, treating, and lecturing worldwide on chronic illness and trauma, including the physical, social, and emotional impact of treatment. When her own health limited travel, a colleague suggested seeking collaborators close to home.

“She said, ‘What about Saint Rose?” says Fennell, speaking from Albany Health Management Associates Inc., the company she started in 1986.

Through campus contacts, Fennell met Dr. Nancy Dorr, a professor of psychology, and a decade Fennell’s junior. Among other things, Dorr, who earned her doctorate in social psychology, examines factors that influence health and well-being.

The two have now collaborated, and worked with other professors and students, on scores of studies. “How do people live with chronic illness?” they ask, and “How well does the medical establishment respond?”

“Some practitioners don’t pay attention to research, but Patricia really values it and welcomes those of us who want to contribute,” Dorr says. “At the same time, I don’t have a lot of connections with people who have diseases. She has helped us get experience in the real world.”

Here, they discuss their work.

Our most recent studies have been with Dr. Lee Shapiro, a Capital District rheumatologist who specializes in scleroderma. Our projects have been with patients with systemic sclerosis, a relatively rare autoimmune, rheumatic disorder, in which patients can experience hardening of the skin and the tissue of internal organs. Since the disease is not well known, it can take many years for patients to be diagnosed. Many find the process traumatic.

One study examined the process by which patients were diagnosed, with the goal of understanding this experience to inform how to cut the time from first symptoms to diagnosis. Two psychology majors, Frank Hauser ’21 and Madison Taylor ’19, assisted. Another study examined how patient care was affected by COVID-19 and mental health during the pandemic.

We also recently wrote a review paper along with psychology student Shane George ’22 on the experience of loss, grief, stigma, and trauma in patients severely affected by myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.

Take us through a typical project. Who does what?

Fennell: Typically, I bring a potential project to Nancy to see if this is of interest and a good fit for one of her students. We meet with stakeholders and listen to the issues that concern them. For example, “Can we lessen the time until a patient receives a diagnosis?” Then, we discuss a possible research design, considering the clinical/organizational problems and a possible methodological framework.

Dorr: I typically review research on the topic, and we read and discuss articles to plan the study. I write the protocol for obtaining ethical approval for research with human participants from the Institutional Review Board. I set up the data collection procedure and conduct the statistical analysis. We jointly discuss the data and interpret the results. We then present our results at a conference and write a manuscript reporting the results to submit to an academic journal.

How do your differences affect your professional partnership?

Fennell: I have professional connections throughout the world, especially with physicians and health professionals who treat a variety of chronic illnesses. Through teaching and collaborating at the postgraduate level in a variety of disciplines throughout the U.S., Europe, and Africa, there are new opportunities for us to consult and design studies with, for example, a Norwegian delegation, a colleague at the University of Michigan Medical School, and regional medical practitioners.

Dorr: I bring knowledge of statistics and data analysis to the partnership.

Fennell: Nancy is able to bring a truly significant level of expertise that’s, frankly, rare.

Otherwise, we think we may be more similar, just with a different primary focus in our “day jobs,” and that makes us good partners. We both care deeply about the patients, public health, and the social issues, as well as the most effective way to measure and describe these concerns.

Can you describe a finding or two that has really helped people?

Among our results that we find most important are those showing that patients can be traumatized by their interactions with health care professionals. While this did not come as a surprise to us, given our clinical and theoretical work, the trauma involved with chronic illness is relatively ignored in the empirical literature.

What is the impact of a faculty-alumni collaboration?

Fennell: We can improve public health, help patients, and educate professionals through research and training.

Dorr: Our work introduces Saint Rose students to researching real-world problems.

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