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PhD pursuit helps doctor see bigger picture

When Dr. Helena Piccinini-Vallis (MD, MSc, CCFP) began pursuing her PhD in Family Medicine in 2012, she had a very specific idea of what she wanted to focus on in her research. Now, two years into the program, she credits her coursework with helping her to discover a deeper connection to her work.

“I realized that I needed to back up a bit and take a look at the bigger picture,” she says. “I entered the program being very focused on the management of obesity, particularly as it relates to pregnancy, but I became very interested in patient-centered care and how that relates to managing obesity in patients. My key interest has now shifted to patient-centered care.”

Currently a Clinician Investigator with the Department of Family Medicine at Dalhousie University, Dr. Piccinini-Vallis has been in practice for 20 years – the first six of which were in private practice. Since first joining that Department in 1999 as a clinician, she has held positions there including Team Leader and Halifax Undergraduate Site Director. Her numerous publications, grants, and awards include the CIHR Strategic Training Fellow in Interdisciplinary Primary Health Care Research for 2014 – 2015.

It was the Research Director at Dalhousie Family Medicine who first suggested that she pursue her PhD, says Dr. Piccinini-Vallis. Despite an already busy schedule of teaching, academic and scholarly work, she looked into the program and decided to apply. “It’s becoming more competitive in family medicine research and having a PhD will help me be more competitive in that world. I felt like I had snuck into research. This program will enable me to participate in research at a level that I couldn’t before and give me the knowledge I need to move forward,” Dr. Piccinini-Vallis says.

Even more important, she says, has been the opportunity to focus on the core values of family medicine. “You’re learning from the people who wrote the books on the origin and theory of family medicine. There are some very key people in family medicine research who work at Western and it’s fantastic to be learning from them.”

She is also passing that knowledge on to others. “What I’ve learned in my coursework has helped me in my teaching,” she says. “Whenever I get the chance to discuss the patient-centered clinical method with learners I take the opportunity. I also teach them about self-reflection and how it helps us as clinicians to understand our patients better.”

Once she’s completed her coursework, Dr. Piccinini-Vallis will begin devoting her time to her thesis, which she anticipates will focus on patient-centered care and the management of obesity. “My experience in this program has been really positive. Not only have I had the opportunity to network with other colleagues and learn about family medicine, but it’s really taught me a lot about myself and that has been helpful for me in my personal life as well. I would recommend the program to anyone looking to grow.”