Enrollments are up in Harvard Chan School’s popular executive education program
November 3, 2022: Every year from March to November, around 400 students from around the world meet each week for three hours, some in person in a classroom at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and others in other places around the world. , via videoconference, to learn how to conduct clinical research.
They are participants in a program called Principles and Practice of Clinical Research (PPCR), taught by doctor Philip Fregniteacher of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and director of a clinical research laboratory at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston focused on neuromodulation, techniques to help patients after nervous system injuries.
Launched at Harvard Medical School in 2006, the PPCR has been offered since 2016 through the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Executive and Continuing Professional Education (ECPE) Program. To date, more than 5,000 people from 60 countries have participated and registrations have increased by a third in the last six years alone. “It’s our largest program by far,” said Susan Roth, executive director of ECPE. She credits Fregni for the show’s popularity. “He’s passionate heart and soul about it,” she said.
Fregni’s goal is to inspire beginning physicians to learn to conduct clinical research, in the same way that he himself was inspired when he came to Harvard from his native Brazil in 2007 for that purpose. “We’re teaching everything they need to know about clinical research that they never learned well in medical school because they were busy learning pathology, microbiology and all the other subjects you get in medical training,” Fregni said.
Clinical research, he noted, is key to improving medicine. “Medicine is based on evidence. But doctors need to understand the evidence,” she said. “Clinical research gives us the tools to generate the evidence, as well as to understand it, to understand why treatments work or don’t work, or why they only work in a certain population.”
During the nine months of the program, students get a basic introduction to what clinical research entails, such as how to review the existing literature on a particular clinical question, choose research methods, design a clinical trial, perform statistical analysis, and produce a manuscript for publication. Such skills can be hard to come by in developing countries. “PPCR is helping to fill a void,” said Roth.
PPCR students come from all over the world, including Brazil, China, Guatemala, Japan, Nigeria, and Qatar. Every Thursday, Fregni teaches an in-person class of about 40 students in the Kresge Building at Harvard Chan School. Other student groups meet at sites around the world and participate via video; they are visible on screens located around the Kresge classroom. Students who are unable to join one of the group sites participate individually. The program also includes two intensive online workshops on statistics and manuscript writing, and a five-day face-to-face immersion course in which Harvard professors review and discuss material presented throughout the year, and students present their group projects to all the class.
Periodically throughout the year, Fregni visits the site. If he is at one of the PPCR sites on a Thursday, he teaches the regular class session from that location. He also makes time during his visits for out-of-class meetings with PPCR students and alumni, advising them on career goals as well as future educational opportunities or research projects.
One of the highlights of the course is its emphasis on practical work. Each student is required to submit a clinical research project. Fregni and other teachers in the program guide the work and the students support each other during the process, working in small groups.
During this year’s program, which concludes on November 3, Adriana Costanza, a student from Costa Rica, developed a study to evaluate a possible therapy to cure cow’s milk allergy in babies. María Hernández, a student from Colombia, conducted a meta-analysis on bone diseases and chronic pancreatitis. Yousra Mahgoub from Sudan explored a new approach to treat and control dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease. “I don’t know if we can apply it in real life, but it would be great if we could,” he said. “It could potentially decrease mortality.”
The connections made on the show are invaluable, the students noted. “I made very good friends on the course,” Hernandez said. “And understanding the way medical practice is done in other countries also serves as a basis for evaluating yourself and finding ways to improve.”
Valentina Guatibonza said that although her native Colombia does not have enough resources to conduct much clinical research, she is determined to use her new skills to improve the situation. “Everything I learn, I can take back to my country,” she said.
photos: Kent Dayton