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Public Health Majors Work on $23.5 Million Grant


News Writer

They’re famous on campus. Professors, students and staff alike recognize the faces of these two seniors and stop them to ask about their accomplishments. Never imagining they would be helping as many people as they are now, Public Health students Austin MacFarland and Jennifer Finney are just happy to be doing what they love.

Under the guidance of associate health and sciences professor Dr. Rebecca Olson, the two are researchers on a $23.5 million, three-year grant spread across 10 hospitals, including St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital where they work. The grant is used to conduct research to help coordinate care for children with medical complexities. MacFarland and Finney have taken on responsibilities that aren’t normally entrusted to undergraduates. From presenting the data they’ve collected thus far to over 100 of the biggest names in healthcare at the annual PCORI (Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute) Conference in Washington, D.C., to having their own interns at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Chronic-Complex Clinic, both seniors are ecstatic about what the future holds.

“We always laugh about how we got here,” Finney said. “And we get along so well, Dr. Olson calls us the dynamic duo.”

Their work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“One of the funniest things that happened [in D.C.] is that a woman asked if we were pediatricians,” MacFarland said. “We said no. ‘Grad students?’ ‘No. We’re undergrads.’ And she said, ‘Oh! Oh, wow, impressive!’”

The goal of this research is to see more clinics like the St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Chronic-Complex Clinic around the country. The all-inclusive, quality coordinated care will reduce the need for families to run around looking for doctors to treat their children who are diagnosed with chronic complexities. According to the Children’s Hospital Association, “Children with medical complexities require the highest level of services and support from children’s hospitals due to the intensity of care and breadth of pediatric specialists required to care for their conditions.” The number of children with this condition is estimated to be three million, the site also says.

One of the biggest assets at the St. Joseph’s clinic is a call line open 24 hours a day for families to call physicians in cases of non-life-threatening concerns. Because of this, Emergency Room visits can be avoided, reducing overall healthcare costs. Although these children account for less than 10 percent of the population in hospitals, they take up around 40 percent of Medicaid costs, according to 2013 Medicaid figures.

“These are old numbers, but we’re predicted to save about $3.8 million just through this research we’re doing now,” MacFarland said.


Before any of this research began, Finney had just transferred to UT from Carroll University in Wisconsin. She came in pursuing a biology degree, but quickly realized that wasn’t where she was meant to be. While she enjoys the sciences, the practical applications of public health along with its many different career options won her heart over.

“I was looking for something a little bigger,” Finney said. “For me to be stuck in a lab, I knew I wasn’t reaching my potential. And Chem lab, that was my tipping point.”

Even though Finney is new to the field, Olson approached her in a meeting and asked her to oversee the qualitative side, which means Finney can use her creativity to make improvements and come up with solutions like emergency plans, access plans and dynamic care teams. Having the opportunity to conduct research that will have the potential to reform health care nationwide, Finney was honored and quickly accepted.

Taking 21 credits this semester, Finney is playing catch up from when she transferred and plans to graduate on time in Spring 2016. Similarly, MacFarland explored several options before realizing he is where he should be.

Since childhood, MacFarland was fascinated by the sciences. In middle school, he attended Medical Academy of Science and Health (M.A.S.H.) camps where he had hands on experience in hospitals, exploring a variety of healthcare careers. In his sophomore year in high school, he realized he had an aptitude for business and ranked first place nationally for Management Decision Making. He came to UT, was enrolled in its prestigious nursing program, and while he said the clinical experience was fantastic, it’s not what he wanted to be doing in the long run. Having a strong background in both the sciences and business, he decided to combine the two.

“It was trial and error until I figured out what I wanted to do,” MacFarland said. “In the long term, I’m looking for some type of management [position] in healthcare.”

MacFarland has Olson as an advisor and as a professor in several classes. She approached him knowing his involvement of leadership on campus and asked him to oversee the quantitative side, a big piece of the research. MacFarland properly organizes and represents patient data as one of the children in the database.

When he’s not working at St. Joseph’s or conducting quantitative research for classes, MacFarland works in the Office of Students Leadership and Engagement (OSLE), serves as the Student Coordinator of the President’s Leadership Fellows, presides over the Spartan’s Calisthenics Club, and is an actor in Gluten-Free Improv.

Clearly, both MacFarland and Finney excel at managing their time.

“My brother calls me lame, but I am so passionate about what I do I don’t want to do anything else,” Finney said.

Although MacFarland and Finney are in charge of different aspects in the research, their work overlaps and both are equally as passionate about what they do.

“[Finney] is awesome. I couldn’t do any of this without her,” MacFarland said.

“If I worked with someone who didn’t have as much passion as Austin, it wouldn’t be as enjoyable,” Finney said. “I couldn’t imagine doing this with someone else.”

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