My Specialty

Nurse Researcher

Using data and surveys to develop evidence-based nursing care

Catherine Cohen, nurse researcher with RAND corporation, sits at her desk smiling.

Catherine Cohen, RN, Ph.D.
Health Policy Researcher
The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica

Please share with us the arc of your nursing career.

I started in nursing late as a second career. During my earlier career as a business strategy consultant (mostly for pharmaceutical companies), I spoke with many healthcare providers, including nurse practitioners, which got me interested in the field. As I learned more, I decided it was the right fit for me.

I always thought I’d eventually get involved in research, but I first wanted to become a nurse practitioner, focusing on geriatrics. However, the person who became my mentor at Columbia encouraged me to go directly into the Ph.D. program at the Center for Health Policy at Columbia University School of Nursing. So, I haven’t practiced clinically as an NP, although I’ve kept up my license.

I got hooked on policy as a way to impact many people at once. I was also interested in demonstrating the value of nursing through the economic and business lens that I had developed.

I like coming up with solutions to problems, and developing evidence-based guidance to help nurses provide the care patients need.

What’s your vision of the importance of nursing research today?

Nurses should be able to understand data. Information is so widely available online that being able to interpret the scientific studies behind that information is essential to staying on the cutting edge of practice.

Everyone needs that critical eye for weighing the quality of evidence.

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We have a complex healthcare system where each area is interconnected. That means if we want to address any one thing, we need to gather evidence from many angles and perspectives.

Right now, the big datasets that are available are very limited. There are key populations for which we have little evidence regarding systems that affect care, and there are research areas where there needs to be better data over time.

Also, some large datasets don’t include as many nursing-sensitive measures as I think they should.

While AI may simplify some aspects of research and help us make better use of the data we have, we’ll ultimately be limited if we don’t focus more on nurses when it comes to data collection.

We need data that helps us make sense of factors like the various degrees that nurses have, the wide variety of work they do, and the market dynamics.

Tell us a little about how you approach a research project.

Sometimes, I will identify a specific policy change — such as a push to identify sepsis sooner in order to get patients to treatment as fast as possible — and then analyze existing Medicare datasets. We’re trying to see whether the diagnosis and treatment patterns are what we’d expect if that policy were working as intended.

Other times, I’ll hear in interviews for one project about nurses’ on-the-ground problems or hunches, and then start a new project to see if those same patterns are also appearing at the state or national level.

If there’s a pattern that extends beyond a particular facility, it may have implications for guidelines or policies that can benefit others.

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Often, my team and I find patterns we didn’t expect and can’t explain based on the data we have. In those cases, we may go into nursing homes, hospices, or hospitals to conduct interviews and focus groups. We want to understand the ‘why’ and identify ways the system could be working better.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m a mixed-methods researcher, so I work with surveys and large datasets, and also gather information through interviews with healthcare providers, administrators, patients, and health insurance representatives.

Doing qualitative analysis of interview transcripts and programming the analysis of large data also takes up big chunks of my time.

Most days, I’m hopping between meetings to coordinate or work with other teams of researchers. However, some days I disappear from Zoom and phone calls to prepare a report for a contract client or write a paper for a peer-reviewed journal.

How do nurses break into research when they have no prior experience?

There needs to be a certain level of infrastructure in order to conduct research — an institutional review board for human studies, for example — so it’s not something a nurse can simply start doing on their own.

However, there are opportunities outside of research institutions. Some hospitals have programs where nurses can get involved in research. Some nurses have joint appointments between a university and a hospital, which gives them experience in both research and clinical practice.

What are your long-term career goals?

When it comes to research, funding is always a challenge. Many of my goals involve bringing in more funding for topics I’m interested in, such as how to realize the promise of health information technology, and how policy is and isn’t working when it comes to nursing practice.

KEITH CARLSON, RN, BSN, NC-BC, has worked as a nurse since 1996 and offers expert professional coaching at

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