Program offers physicians worldwide opportunity to gain clinical research skills

Felipe Fregni-class-clinical research
Felipe Fregni teaches class on clinical research from a Kresge classroom; students from around the world participate via videoconferencing

Enrollments have jumped at popular Harvard Chan School executive education program

November 3, 2022 – Every year, from March through November, about 400 students from around the world gather every week for three hours—some in person in a classroom at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and some at other sites around the world, via videoconferencing—to learn how to conduct clinical research.

They’re participants in a program called Principles and Practice of Clinical Research (PPCR), taught by physician Felipe Fregni, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and director of a clinical research laboratory at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston focused on neuromodulation—techniques to help patients after nervous system injuries.

Launched at Harvard Medical School in 2006, PPCR has been offered since 2016 through Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Executive and Continuing Professional Education (ECPE) program. To date, more than 5,000 people from 60 countries have participated and enrollments have jumped by a third in the past six years alone. “It’s our biggest program by far,” said Susan Roth, ECPE executive director. She credits Fregni for the program’s popularity. “He is just heart-and-soul passionate about it,” she said.

Felipe Fregni
Felipe Fregni

Fregni’s goal is to inspire early-career physicians to learn how to conduct clinical research, much in the way he got inspired himself when he came to Harvard from his native Brazil in 2007 for that purpose. “We’re teaching everything they need to know about clinical research that they never learned well during medical school because they were busy learning pathology, microbiology, and all the other subjects one gets in medical training,” said Fregni.

Clinical research, he noted, is key to improving medicine. “Medicine is based on evidence. But clinicians need to understand the evidence,” he said. “Clinical research gives us the tools to generate the evidence as well as to understand it, to understand why treatments work or don’t work, or why they work only in a certain population.”

Over the program’s nine months, students get a soup-to-nuts primer on what’s involved with clinical research, such as how to review existing literature about a particular clinical question, choose research methods, design a clinical trial, conduct statistical analyses, and produce a manuscript for publication. Such skills can be hard to come by in developing countries. “PPCR is helping fill a gap,” said Roth.

PPCR students on screen
Connecting with fellow students

Students in PPCR come from all parts of the globe, including Brazil, China, Guatemala, Japan, Nigeria, and Qatar. Every Thursday, Fregni teaches an in-person class of about 40 students in Harvard Chan School’s Kresge Building. Other groups of students gather at sites around the world and participate via video; they’re visible on screens placed around the Kresge classroom. Students unable to join one of the group sites participate individually. The program also includes two online intensive workshops on statistics and manuscript writing, and an in-person five-day immersion course in which Harvard faculty review and discuss material presented through the year, and students present their group projects to the entire class.

Periodically through the year, Fregni makes site visits. If he’s at one of the PPCR sites on a Thursday, he teaches the regular class session from that location. He also makes time during his visits for meetings outside of class with PPCR students and alumni, advising them about career goals as well as future education opportunities or research projects.

One of the highlights of the course is its emphasis on hands-on work. Each student is required to come up with a clinical research project. Fregni and other program faculty guide the work, and students support each other through the process, working in small groups.

During this year’s program—which wraps up on November 3—Adriana Costanza, a student from Costa Rica, developed a study to evaluate a potential therapy to cure cow’s milk allergy in infants. Maria Hernandez, a student from Colombia, conducted a meta-analysis about bone diseases and chronic pancreatitis. Yousra Mahgoub of Sudan explored a new approach to treating and managing dengue, a mosquito-borne viral disease. “I don’t know if we will be able to apply it in real life, but it would be great if we could,” she said. “It could potentially decrease mortality.”

Connections made in the program are invaluable, the students noted. “I made really great friends in the course,” said Hernandez. “And understanding the way medical practice is done in other countries also serves as a basis for evaluating yourself and coming up with ways to improve.”

Valentina Guatibonza said that, even though her native Colombia doesn’t have enough resources to conduct a lot of clinical research, she is determined to use her newfound skills to improve the situation. “Everything I learn, I can take back to my country,” she said.

Karen Feldscher

photos: Kent Dayton