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2023 HSR&D/QUERI National Conference Abstract

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1119 — Increasing a Diverse VA Workforce through a Health Services Research Career Pipeline Program for Students from Historically Excluded Groups

Lead/Presenter: Cindie Slightam ,  Resource Center - HERC
All Authors: Garcia CC (VA Health Economics Resource Center, US Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo Alto, CA), Combs A (VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, VA Central Office, US Department of Veterans Affairs, Palo Alto, CA) Bernard CL (VA Program Evaluation and Resource Center, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, VA Central Office, US Department of Veterans Affairs, Palo Alto, CA) Breland JY (VA Center for Innovation to Implementation, US Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo Alto, CA) Slightam C (VA Center for Innovation to Implementation, US Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Palo Alto, CA)

Objectives:
Increased diversity allows for greater innovation in health systems and patient care. Yet, at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), racial and ethnic pay grade disparities, including relatively few Black and/or Hispanic/Latino employees at the highest pay grades persist. To address this pipeline issue, in 2021 the VA Palo Alto Health Services Research (HSR) division piloted a virtual, paid-internship for community college students from historically excluded groups. The program’s goals were to expose students to HSR at VHA and inspire them in the advancement of their careers.

Methods:
The internship’s development and evaluation drew from elements of community capacity, including understanding the historical context of historically excluded groups, articulating values, leveraging support networks, and relying on critical reflection. Program staff cultivated relationships with over a dozen local community colleges to build partnerships, identify recruitment strategies, and discuss sustainability efforts. Each student was paired with a mentor to receive first-hand exposure to HSR, including working on research teams, attending research talks and trainings, and presenting on their experiences. In addition, the internship provided professional development panels designed to benefit historically excluded groups, e.g., identifying and working with professional mentors, managing professional identities, and applying to HEG-specific scholarship and other research-focused trainings. Students submitted pre- and post-program surveys, provided presentation feedback, completed a survey on their mentorship experience, and participated in exit interviews. Presenters completed a survey regarding their engagement with the students and interest in future collaboration or student meetings. A program debriefing meeting with the mentors was held shortly after to obtain feedback and identify lessons learned.

Results:
After being designed and implemented in less than a year, the internship exceeded its goals for interns and VHA staff. Over sixty applications were received from thirteen local community colleges, and five were selected for this pilot. After participating, the interns were more likely to report that someone with their background and life experience would feel welcome in HSR. Interns reported greater familiarity with research and professional development topics and increased interest in VHA employment. Additionally, COIN staff at all levels were excited, supportive, and felt the program had strong value. More staff volunteered as mentors than could be accommodated and mentors reported excellent experiences with interns.

Implications:
The high number of internship applicants suggests that there is interest among students from historically excluded groups in participating in a paid HSR internship, highlighting this approach as a feasible way to diversify the VHA HSRandD workforce pipeline. Interns and VHA staff were highly satisfied with the program. A non-traditional leadership structure where research associate-level staff with lived experience led implementation efforts also ensured the internship met the needs of interns.

Impacts:
Improving the diversity of the VHA workforce is vital to ensuring that research will continue to foster scientific innovation, a robust learning environment, and enhance public trust. Internship programs that expose diverse student populations to career opportunities available in research will support a growing pipeline of diverse leaders in VHA HSR.