New Guidebook Helps to Minimize Confusion in VA, DoD Research Collaboration

by U.S. Medicine

August 2, 2011

Vadodcolab3.jpgLinda Resnik, PhD, a VA research-health scientist at the Providence VA Medical Center was collaborating on a study with researchers at DoD’s Center for Intrepid (CFI) when the site principal investigator there was reassigned to a different location. A second DoD site principal investigator who took over was subsequently also reassigned to a different location.

“He wasn’t there that long before he was reassigned, and we had to have a third principal investigator,” Resnik recounted.

Resnik’s experience is cited in a new VA guidebook as the type of challenges that beset collaborative research between the VA and DoD: While VA researchers may be around for the long term, DoD researchers are frequently reassigned or redeployed.

The guidebook, the VA-DoD Research Collaboration Guidebook for Healthcare Research, seeks to help DoD and VA human subject healthcare researcher collaborators navigate research protocols and plan for potential issues that could arise.

A need for this guidebook “was recognized by VA HRS&D,” and it was created in collaboration with DoD contributors, explained Resnik, who is one of the authors of the guidebook. 

Collaborative Research

At a recent webinar, Resnik and others who worked on the guidebook explained that the manual includes information for researchers on finding a collaborator, planning a proposal, finding research resources and formalizing a collaborative agreement, among other topics. In addition, because researchers from VA and DoD may know little about how each other’s systems work, the guidebook outlines the research infrastructure in the Army, DoD, Air Force and VA.

While research collaborations between the agencies offer many benefits, the guidebook points out there also are challenges, such as that the departments have different sets of policies and procedures governing research. Data-sharing between the departments often has barriers. Changes in base commanders and other high-ranking staff also might lead to changes in research priorities and the reduction of support for ongoing projects.

“One of the things that is important for VA investigators to realize when working with collaborators from the DoD is that there are different types of events that can occur that can be disruptive to research,” said Resnik. “For example, in working with the DoD, there are possibilities that your collaborator could be reassigned or deployed. So, in planning your research, it is important to develop a back-up plan.”

The authors of the guidebook advise that an inexperienced assistant professor or junior investigator should not be involved in collaborative projects as principal investigator because of the complexity and length of time involved in setting up collaborative research.

Another tip in the guidebook is that researchers should make sure to get leadership support from the participating institutions involved in collaborative projects.

“We suggest that it is important to meet with the proposed research collaborators and membership of their leadership team including administrators from research, base commanders and so on,” said Resnik. “It is important to cement the relationship between all parties to make sure that everyone is on board and supportive, because these types of projects involve a lot of buy-in and a lot of administrative support.”

Because access to medical records and protected health information is limited to research and/or clinical staff within each agency, the guidebook suggests that working out a data-collection, sharing and analysis plan is critical to the success of a collaborative project.

Researchers also need to know how to navigate DoD and VA IRBs, and the guidebook offers tips on how to do that.

“It is true that collaborative research projects between the DoD and VA have to go through double IRBs, because the VA and DoD do not recognize each other’s IRBs,” Resnik explained. “That means an extra level of human-subjects approval.” 

New Guidebook Helps to Minimize Confusion in VA, DoD Research Collaboration Cont.

DoD-VA Collaborations

Col. Charles Engel, M.D, MPH, director of the DoD Deployment Health Clinical Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who contributed to the guidebook, said that, from a military standpoint, it is a great opportunity for military researchers to collaborate with VA researchers who “have a shared interest in a population of people who are serving our country or have served our country in uniform.” He said that one of his recommendations for those contemplating collaborative research between DoD and VA is to “seek out credible collaborators.”

“Especially if you are on the VA side trying to get into a DoD population, you really want to be seeking someone who has done it before,” he said.

Resnik said that one of her recommendations would be for the researchers to meet in person. That was a concern echoed by Gayle Reiber, PhD, MPH, senior VA career scientist and an author of the guidebook. She spoke of a study for which she was an investigator, the “National Survey of Service Members and Veterans from Vietnam and OIF/OEF with Major Traumatic Limb Loss,” and said that meeting in person with her DoD collaborators would have been beneficial.

“As it turned out, I would have been much wiser to go face-to-face and sit down with all of these people that we did have sort of relationships with, but it would have made the planning and execution of the study much simpler,” she said.

Engel said the greatest challenge he has found in collaborative research has been the “time factor” involved in dealing with the unanticipated delays and diversions that can occur collaborative research.

The rewards of the collaborative research are many, however, he said.

“It has afforded me a great opportunity to learn about our respective systems and see a different way of getting things done and see possibilities in our own system for trying to do something along similar lines,” he said.

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