Sara Qualls

Sara Qualls

Sara Qualls

UCCS Aging Center
You can have the best ideas in the world, but you need to get the products-- papers, books, reports, software-- out into the hands of the people who need them.

Bridging the Gap: Improving Patient Treatment with Communication

By Jenny Maloney

Edited by Ali Eickholt  

In today's world of constant social media, where a message can be sent from Colorado Springs to Singapore with a simple tap on a touch screen, it's difficult to understand how a doctor may not be able to get important information on a patient from a fellow doctor across the street - or possibly just down the hallway.

But these breakdowns do happen, and it bothers Sara Honn Qualls, professor of psychology and aging studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her research centers on geropsychology, the branch of psychology focused on the concerns of older adults.

"I'm curious about how to make services work better for providers, older adults, and families," Qualls says. There are plenty of opportunities for miscommunication between and among these three groups. "I see so many disconnects, where someone provides a well-intended service that harms someone unintentionally. It drives me crazy when one provider makes a bad treatment decision because they lack some of the information that another provider has. So I'm passionate about finding ways to connect people."

For over a decade, Qualls has developed several different research areas - all geared toward learning about the challenges older adults face regarding care and then overcoming those challenges - and intercommunication is key. She is the Director of Gerontology at UCCS and a practicing clinical psychologist.

She helped establish the CU Aging Center in Colorado Springs, where her research teams conduct their research with real patients. The non-profit CU Aging Center is the primary practicum training site for the APA accredited clinical psychology Ph.D. program.

At the Center, according to Qualls, "Caregiver clients complete standardized assessment tools about the care-recipient challenges, as well as the caregiver's own well-being at the time of intake, completion of the services, and six months later." Qualls' team breaks down the information gathered and applies that knowledge to identify ways to improve or eliminate the challenges they uncover. Through this process, they cover a range of topics important to the aging and their families.

For example, Qualls and her team look into psychological well-being and adjustment regarding senior housing. "We examine challenges such as depression, loneliness, and anxiety as well as adaptation processes like social integration. We examine longitudinal data on standardized assessment tools that were included in an annual wellness assessment to track changes over time, and to examine predictors of successful adaptation."

Her research goes beyond the needs of older adults and their families, into the workforce surrounding them. Doctors and other healthcare providers are central to the well being of patients and their families, so Qualls has focused on them as well.

"I have been involved in the development of guidelines for training, models of training, and analysis of the workforce in psychology that is prepared to address mental and behavioral health needs of older adults."

With all of the different parties involved in older adult care, Qualls has dedicated a great deal of her research to finding and eliminating the breakdowns in communication between these parties. Qualls has chosen to focus on the potential for technology to bridge the gaps.

Her first focus is on communication with family. It is often difficult for aging adults to stay in touch with their families. As part of a National Institute on Aging (NIA) funded Small Business Innovation Research grant to Caring Family, Inc., Qualls field tested a new social network called the Family Communication System in assisted living facilities.

"We demonstrated we could increase the frequency of communication, and the range of people with whom very frail older adults communicate by using this social network linkage," says Qualls.

For those adults who are not in assisted living, Qualls has partnered with home health agencies. "We are field testing a prompting and instructional program delivered through an iPad to frail older adults wanting to maintain independence in their own home but whose memory problems put them at risk of poor self-care." This project is also funded through the NIA, through a Small Business Innovation Research grant to local Colorado Springs company AbleLink Technologies.  This technology is designed to help care providers and frailer adults stay on track.

In an effort to keep documentation in one place, which is key to communication within a facility, Qualls and her team collaborated on development and deployment of an electronic record system designed to enhance quality of care in assisted living. According to Qualls, "The program archives care information but, more importantly, prompts staff to provide personalized care and individualized communication." 

But what about adults who have conditions that affect their ability to effectively communicate? How can healthcare staff gauge a patient and provide quality treatment? Understanding this is an issue, Qualls' research has led to the development of a Cognitive and Psychological Screen to help in uncovering potential issues.

"Our laboratory tests the use of this screen in various industries," says Qualls. "where care staff need a time-efficient, cost-efficient, and accurate means of identifying problems in cognitive function or psychological well-being that might influence self-management of health."

Qualls' research is now more out in the field than earlier in her career. Now she is elbow to elbow with community providers and agencies, in order to create the best and most useful tools for everyone involved in older adult care.

"Products matter," says Qualls. "You can have the best ideas in the world, but you need to get the products - papers, books, reports, software - out into the hands of the people who need them."

As a professor, she has dedicated herself to passing on these ideas to a new group of caregivers. And her students have responded to her guidance.

Qualls has received multiple awards for her work, and there's one that means more to her than any other. "The award that touches me most is the Distinguished Mentorship Award from the Society for Clinical Geropsychology. I was nominated by students, including some from my lab and others who I supervised in clinical settings. Their belief that I had an impact on them is fabulous."

You can learn more about Qualls at her website