GRAND RAPIDS — Nearly four years after forming a research center, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital wants to focus more on exploring and developing potential new therapies to treat patients.
Dr. Janet Niemeier, an accomplished researcher with more than 25 years of clinical and research experience, joined the Grand Rapids-based Mary Free Bed in January as director of the John F. Butzer Center for Research & Innovation. Niemeier succeeds Dr. John Butzer, who served as part-time director of the center after retiring as chief medical officer in 2014 and is now research director emeritus.
Niemeier’s hiring as full-time director of the Butzer Center will accelerate research work “in a big way” at Mary Free Bed in the years ahead, CEO Kent Riddle said. Significantly expanding research forms part of a three-prong approach to building Mary Free Bed into “number one in the world” for rehabilitative care and research, Riddle said.
“Our goal is for Mary Free Bed to become known as the biggest — and the best, too — rehabilitation provider in the world,” he said. “To do that, to be the best, you have to be contributing to the science and the field of knowledge.”
Since forming the Butzer Center in 2014, Mary Free Bed has become involved with hundreds of patients in about two dozen research projects, compared to just one or two projects previously.
Niemeier joined Mary Free Bed from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., where she served as research director and a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Niemeier served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and has received an appointment as an adjunct professor at Michigan State University.
Niemeier cited the base of research built since 2014 and the potential to lead Mary Free Bed to the national and international research stage as luring her to the position at the Butzer Center.
“I just think of it kind of being on the launch pad,” Niemeier said. “It is so well poised to take off.”
A board-certified rehabilitation psychologist who specializes in treating people with traumatic brain injury, Niemeier’s research work has been backed by federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.
Among her goals at Mary Free Bed is to establish a broader and more diverse funding base to support research.
“That’s going to be our first big job, to get the dollars in,” she said.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR COLLABORATION
Within a few years, Niemeier would like to see Mary Free Bed involved in “significant trials where we’re looking at interventions that will help people have a better quality of life,” she said.
“There’s no, for example, silver bullet or cure for traumatic brain injury, and I’m hoping we have at least one or two studies underway to try to figure out how to help us get those cures or those treatments,” Niemeier said.
As Mary Free Bed pursues a broader research agenda, the focus will shift toward outcomes where researchers and clinicians work together, Riddle said.
That could mean a clinician working with a rehab patient and coming up with an idea for improving a technique or therapy, or developing a new approach or care protocol.
The clinician and researchers can work together to vet and apply their theory and gather data on its effectiveness.
That approach is “very evidence-based but with theories, then you go and prove the theories and you turn that into practice very quickly,” Riddle said. That kind of research requires staff at Mary Free Bed to adopt a “culture of scientific inquiry,” he said.
“You sort of develop the culture so everybody’s thinking this way,” Riddle said.
Riddle believes many of Mary Free Bed’s clinicians will embrace the hospital’s drive to perform much more research. In a recent staff meeting of therapists where he asked how many were interested in getting involved in a research project, about two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands, he said.
“There are so many wonderful benefits that come out of that (interest),” Riddle said. “We’ll end up doing a lot of research as a result.”
The research will extend well beyond Mary Free Bed’s primary hospital campus in Grand Rapids.
Through a statewide network formed six years ago, Mary Free Bed works with 32 hospitals across Michigan. Mary Free Bed most recently formed a joint venture to provide rehab care at Saginaw-based Covenant HealthCare. The venture includes exploring the potential for a new rehab center in Saginaw.
The network of hospitals provides both the settings and the pools of patients for a much broader research arm.
“Mary Free Bed is really in a good position to do this because of our reach,” Riddle said.