NCMIC-Supported Fellowship Program Aims to Increase CIH Research

The NCMIC Foundation last year awarded the University of Minnesota a grant supporting the continuation of the Integrative Health Research (IHR) Fellowship Program. The IHR Fellowship was originally established in 2018 with funding from the NCMIC Foundation. Its goal is to “improve the nation’s health and well-being by increasing the quality and quantity of chiropractic and complementary and integrative health (CIH) research.”

ACA Blogs reached out to three IHR Fellows recently to ask about their experiences, their research, their career path and their advice for aspiring researchers. Following is our interview with Brent Leininger, DC, MS; Heidi Mendenhall, DC, MS; and Craig Schulz, DC, MS.

What is the focus of your research?

Dr. Leininger: My research focuses on understanding not only how effective different non-drug treatments are, but also

Dr. Leininger

how much they cost, what impact they have on potential future treatments (e.g., MRIs, surgeries), and how they affect the individual’s ability to work and function. Combining these elements provides a more complete picture of what value different treatments offer.

Dr. Mendenhall: My primary research focus has centered on optimizing the engagement of underrepresented populations in complementary and integrative health (CIH) research for pain, including chiropractic, which to date has been under-addressed.

Dr. Schulz: My research focuses on the effectiveness and implementation of integrated complementary, conventional, and community-based approaches for low back pain patients to foster positive and adaptive pain behaviors in sustainable ways. I’m especially interested in studying supported self-management inventions that integrate behavior models to meet low back pain sufferers’ biopsychosocial or whole-person needs.

How does your research support the goals of the IHR Fellowship?

Dr. Leininger: One of the main goals of the Integrative Health Research Fellowship Program is to ensure fellows are well prepared to address the most societally relevant public health issues over the next few decades. Given the burden of back

Dr. Schulz

and neck pain, the current opioid epidemic, and the resources and costs devoted to these conditions, my research fits nicely with the IHR Fellowship goals.

Dr. Mendenhall: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the public health landscape dramatically, resulting in a new resolve to address health disparities, including those that currently exist in CIH research for pain. I believe our work in this field is very timely, as interest in addressing pain with non-drug approaches remains a high national priority.
How has the IHR Fellowship Program impacted your research?

Dr. Schulz: The fellowship program has provided me access to expertise and resources to support and guide my research career development through rich mentorship opportunities. It has also facilitated networking opportunities to grow collaborative relationships through interactions with other researchers and research teams with common interests.

Tell us about your path to get here. How did you become interested in this program?

Dr. Leininger: I was in private practice for three years before I stopped ignoring the voice in the back of my head that said, “You really should pursue a career in clinical research.” … I started looking to the scientific literature to help guide diagnostic and treatment decisions and quickly realized that there were large gaps. One of my contacts in my local provider network was also completing training in clinical research, so I reached out to them for advice and they put me in touch with the IHR fellowship group.

Dr. Mendenhall: After spending about five years in a private diagnostic imaging consultation practice, I found that I really missed being in a collaborative,

Dr. Mendenhall

academic setting. In 2018, I had the opportunity to join the IHR Fellowship Program and was able to participate in almost all aspects of ongoing NIH-funded CIH clinical trials, including recruitment and enrollment, intervention delivery, participant engagement, and quantitative and qualitative data collection analysis and interpretation.

Dr. Schulz: I went into chiropractic clinical practice following graduation from chiropractic school, and it wasn’t long before I became interested in research and its application in clinical practice. I returned to Northwestern Health Sciences University to become involved in clinical research and to begin to develop my research career… Over time, my professional role grew to be predominantly administrative and supportive to clinical trials, and I lacked the resources to support my own research career development. The IHR Fellowship provided the opportunity for a faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota and I joined in late 2017. I was afforded protected time and resources through the IHR Fellowship to develop my research career.

What have learned from being a part of this program?

Dr. Leininger: First, to be humble and upfront regarding what you don’t know. It’s quite astonishing to me how broad the range of skill sets are within the IHR Fellowship Program. Each of us has a different area of expertise that has been fostered by unique training, coursework, and projects.

Dr. Mendenhall: I learned about the importance of examining the effectiveness of chiropractic care for pain by applying a whole-person, biopsychosocial perspective, as well as the vast opportunities that exist for collaborative research experiences and educational opportunities for CIH professionals who are interested in research.
Dr. Schulz: I’ve gained an increased appreciation of the disparities that exist in our current health system and the great need for developing research of interventions that can be successfully implemented over the long term and reach underrepresented populations.

What advice would you give to someone interested in this area of study?

Dr. Leininger: I would start by reviewing the literature in the area and identifying what groups are doing the type of work you’re interested in. I’d reach out to them and explore what opportunities might be available in their lab or other labs to develop the skills needed to get you to the point where you could contribute.
Dr. Mendenhall: Be open to new ideas and opportunities!

Dr. Schulz: Get to know the senior researchers in your area of interest and consider attending conferences as a great way to begin to form the necessary relationships to develop a research career.

Anything else you want to add?

Dr. Leininger: Just how grateful I am for NCMIC, which supports the Fellowship Program and others to help provide guidance and answer meaningful questions to both the chiropractic profession and broader society.

Cassie LaJeunesse is an associate in the ACA Branding and Communications Department.