The Brigham Nurse Scientist Program offers every nurse access to resources and mentorship to help them pursue research and innovative initiatives. This story is part of a series featuring the Brigham’s nurse scientists.
With encouragement from family and an innate desire to help others, Priscilla Gazarian, PhD, CNS, RN, knew even from an early age that nursing would be a natural career choice. But it wasn’t until she began practicing that she discovered a passion for research and the doors it would open to helping patients and nurses in different ways than she had previously imagined.
“While working in my unit, I often found myself precepting new nurses and walking students through new cases. I enjoyed this work and began teaching a formal course. But I quickly realized that to do more, I would need an advanced degree. So, I got my MS and eventually a PhD.”
Soon after starting graduate school, Gazarian’s motivations took an unexpected turn and she developed a deep appreciation for the scientific process, as it offered opportunities to creatively approach her work.
“Once I started my program, I found that I loved research. It stimulated my curiosity and allowed me to identify ways to improve clinical care,” she said.
Today, Gazarian is a nurse-scientist at the Brigham, and the Department Chair in the College of Nursing and Health Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, teaching PhD and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) students, while also conducting research on patient safety. Her research interests focus on patient engagement in preventing harm and adverse events, such as in-hospital cardiopulmonary arrest and monitor alarm events. Currently, she is investigating how to engage end-of-life patients and their care partners in preventing harm. Gazarian is affiliated with the Center for Surgery and Public Health at the Brigham and serves as a member of an interdisciplinary team investigating advance care planning.
A Quest to Improve Patient Safety
Gazarian began graduate school in 2002, shortly after the release of two profoundly impactful publications, “To Err Is Human” and “Crossing the Quality Chasm,” both pivotal to the launch of the patient safety movement. Conversations surrounding these works spurred her interest in improving the way nursing care is delivered.
With this new lens, she began identifying safety gaps in her clinical practice.
“I vividly remember walking into the unit one morning and seeing my entire team gathered around a patient’s bedside,” recalls Gazarian. “The patient was in critical condition, and they managed to stabilize her and transfer her to the intensive care unit. However, when I reviewed the patient records, I saw that the patient’s condition had been deteriorating since midnight, eight hours prior to this. I do not believe any one person was to blame for this oversight, but I wanted to understand how, as a team, we can prevent these types of incidents.”
Gazarian embarked on her journey to understand how to improve the way nursing care is delivered. Although her dissertation focused on understanding how nurses decide to activate the Rapid Response System, her quest to enhance patient safety didn’t end there. She delved into other areas, such as early recognition of delirium and stroke among hospitalized patients. She also explored how nurses interacted with telemetry monitor alarms to prevent adverse events.
Through her research, she aims to emphasize that improving health care outcomes should be a collective effort, rather than falling on any one individual health care professional.
Passionate about patient safety, Gazarian’s research interests led her to collaborate with other teams, including the Brigham’s Center for Patient Safety, where she worked under the mentorship of senior nurse scientist Patricia Dykes, PhD, RN, FAAN, FACMI, from the Brigham’s Center for Patient Safety, Research, and Practice in the Department of General Internal Medicine. Together, Gazarian and Dykes aim to empower patients to ask questions and actively participate in their healthcare and treatment processes, ultimately creating a safer health care system.
Empowering Tomorrow’s Healthcare Workforce
The most rewarding aspect of Gazarian’s work has always been helping her students achieve success.
“I am immensely proud of my students’ accomplishments,” reflected Gazarian. “The most fulfilling aspects of my job are seeing my students publishing their work or getting postdoc appointments. That is when I know I’ve been successful. I love watching my trainees achieve everything they aspire to do.”
These days, Gazarian devotes most of her time to teaching and research. She shares, “In many ways, my students have replaced my patients. Their passion for learning how to better nursing care keeps me grounded in and connected to my work.”
Looking ahead, Gazarian acknowledges that post-pandemic, health care workers continue to face an ever-growing risk of burnout.
“Not just nurses, but doctors, pharmacists — everybody is burnt out, and overstressed,” expresses Gazarian, who has shifted her focus to identifying different ways that teams could work together in support of patients and each other. “We really must put some attention there so that people continue to choose the nursing profession.”
While it is undeniable that substantial challenges lie ahead, Gazarian firmly believes that even small, incremental changes can have significant, positive impacts on patients and health care workers alike. She emphasizes that with persistence and dedication, we can continue to make the health care system work better for everyone.