Oncology Nurse Dr. Donna Berry Wins Distinguished Researcher Award

Fran Lowry

March 17, 2011

March 17, 2011 — Nurse scientist Donna L. Berry, PhD, RN, has been chosen by the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) to receive its 2011 Distinguished Researcher Award.

Dr. Berry, director of the Cantor Center for Research in Nursing and Patient Care Services at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, will accept her award at the 2011 annual ONS congress in Boston on April 28.

The Distinguished Researcher Award recognizes the lifetime contributions of an ONS member who conducts or promotes research that enhances the science and practice of oncology nursing.

"This is the highest honor that an oncology nurse research can achieve," Dr. Berry said in a statement. "It is very special to me that I am being recognized by my peers."

Dr. Berry's research has been supported by the Oncology Nursing Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institute of Nursing Research.

A True Researcher With a Nurse's Touch

"Donna is a true nurse scientist," Jane Weeks, MD, professor of medicine, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, told Medscape Medical News.

"She's a fantastic researcher, doing really high-quality careful and innovative science," Dr. Weeks continued, "but she hasn't lost the nursing side of this. She brings the issues that nurses understand and care about to the forefront, and that informs her research. The combination is really effective."

Chose the Faster Route

Dr. Berry told Medscape Medical News that she always knew she wanted to work in healthcare. She chose nursing because it was the faster way to reach her goal.

Dr. Donna Berry

"I decided to go to nursing school because it was only 4 years, instead of 8 for some of the other professions. And I had no money. I was on my own. I had to pay my way through school," she said in an interview.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Nursing from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Dr. Berry, who is originally from Geneseo, a small town in upstate New York, went to the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston for her Master's degree, and then on to the University of Washington, in Seattle, for her PhD.

"I chose the University of Washington because it was the number one nursing school in the United States," she said.

Helping Patients Through the Treatment-Decision Maze

Her research focuses on 2 areas: treatment decision making for people with a cancer diagnosis; and cancer symptom and quality-of-life assessment and management.

"Making treatment decisions is a daunting task, and it's worse in some cancers than in others. It seemed to be a most difficult process for men with prostate cancer," Dr. Berry noted.

Each year, more than 200,000 men have to make decisions about treatment for localized prostate cancer. Each of them brings personal factors to the decision, she said.

Personal factors are so important in the decision-making process because there is no medical evidence that one treatment is better than another. "We don't even have evidence that doing an invasive treatment is better than monitoring with active surveillance," Dr. Berry said.

Her research has identified personal factors to help men make the decisions that are best for them based on their personal values and preferences.

"We call it the Personal Patient Profile. It is a Web-based application that is easy to use for men of all literacy levels, in both English and Spanish. It is designed with a touch-screen interface so that anybody can use it, even if they don't have a computer at home or don't know how to use a computer."

A query component assesses men's personal factors and then, on the basis of their answers, develops customized education and coaching on how to talk to their physician about what is important to them.

Nurse Scientists Choose Patient-Centered Research

Her second area of research focuses on cancer symptoms and quality of life.

"This is really the bread and butter of an oncology nurse. It's not just hanging bags of chemo. The majority of an oncology nurse's day is spent preventing symptoms and problems with quality of life, and then managing them once they happen," she said.

Patients do not tend to tell their doctors about their quality-of-life issues for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost is the lack of time they get to spend with their doctor.

To facilitate a more timely exchange, Dr. Berry and her team designed a questionnaire to obtain information about these issues from patients. Using a computer-based interface, they tested the questionnaire in patients who were coming for radiation treatment.

"They loved it. They just loved being able to tell somebody and have a report printed out on how they were doing with their fatigue, their insomnia, their nausea, their depression, and their ability to see their grandchildren and play bridge. All of these life issues and topics were covered in our assessment," she said.

The patients were delighted to be asked about their quality of life, she added.

Dr. Berry is now refining a way for patients to monitor their symptoms and quality-of-life issues at home or from a computer in the clinic or patient education room.

"They are coached on how to understand symptoms, informed about what they can do about their symptoms, and we help them connect to resources for managing their symptoms. We also coach them on how to tell their doctors and nurses about their symptoms when they come back to the clinic," she said.

The system is also a hit with physicians.

"The doctors like being able to tell at a glance what the patient's problems are," she said. "They look at the report and immediately they can see where the top 3 problems are. They don't have to go through a long list of questions with the patient, who might be intimidated or who may give a wrong answer just to please the doctor."

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