When I was starting medical school, I thought my career would be in academic medicine. In fact, during medical school, I spent several years doing research in neuropharmacology. But this was the late 1960s, and I found that I felt stifled by the academic environment of that era. So I left academic research to pursue a career in family medicine.

When I first started treating patients, I realized that my academic training hadn’t prepared me for the realities of primary care. I learned by trial and error, and my patients were my best teachers. I also never gave up on research, but now I was pursuing research informed by real problems that my patients had. I never perceived a difference between practice and research: why practice without measuring what you are doing?

Unlike my academic colleagues, I had complete freedom to pursue only what research interested me and what was important to my patients. I engaged patients in my research every step of the way. So when “patient engagement” became popular, and PCORI legitimized what I was doing, I felt the opposite of stifled: elated, validated.

When 'patient engagement' became popular, and PCORI legitimized what I was doing, I felt the opposite of stifled: elated, validated.

After 35 years of conducting research as an avocation, I retired from clinical practice and now direct the Wisconsin Research and Education Network (WREN), an association of primary care clinics. With help from a PCORI funding award, we brought patients, community clinicians and researchers together to create a research agenda. We’re now exploring what it means to extend beyond the doors of clinics into the communities we serve.

I’ve learned that the academic medical center setting that I found so stifling 30 years ago is evolving rapidly—thanks in large part to initiatives such as PCORI. The University of Wisconsin is actively looking for ways to engage patients and primary care clinicians. Researchers are asking for patient input early in the process. This leads to more relevant results that can more readily improve patient care and outcomes.

I just returned from Iowa where I met with a group of rural clinicians, local drug court representatives, patients recovering from substance abuse, and others. One of the clinicians had received funding from PCORI and convened the group to work on improving access to opioid addiction treatment services in underserved rural communities. This coalition of patients, researchers, clinicians, and other stakeholders has just produced a comparative effectiveness research question, and the process has been magical. I believe the research effort will increase services and lead to improved abstinence and recovery. None of this would have been possible without support from PCORI.

In 2013, David Louis Hahn, MD, MS, retired from a career that combined a nonacademic, community-based family medicine practice with practice-based research. In 2012, he became director of the Wisconsin Research and Education Network, holding a Senior Scientist position in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Hahn also serves as a PCORI Ambassador.

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