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Faculty Profile: Julie K. Johnson, PhD, MSPH

Julie Johnson

Julie K.  Johnson, PhD, MSPH, is a professor of Surgery in the Division of Surgical Oncology. Her research interests include improving the quality and safety of patient care and the qualitative evaluation of clinical microsystems though collaborative relationships and research opportunities. Her work has explored errors in ambulatory pediatric settings, how clinical teams function during inpatient medicine rounds, and gender disparities in burnout among surgical residents. 

Johnson is also a member of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM)’s Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research and the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute.

What are your research interests? 

My research is focused on the quality and safety of patient care and qualitative evaluation of clinical microsystems. I am also very enthusiastic about teaching – I currently teach in the Center for Education in Health Sciences where I lead two courses: Applied Qualitative Research Methods, and Fundamental Methods for Quality and Patient Safety. As a teacher, I have a special interest in developing and using serious games as a way to engage learners with important concepts related to understanding and improving the quality and safety of healthcare. 

What is the ultimate goal of your research?

Ultimately, my research goals are to develop new knowledge about how frontline clinical teams function and how best to work with teams to improve their systems and processes of care.  That has opened the door for many different configurations of research and funding.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I completed a PhD in Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth in 2000, and since that time, regardless of my specific research topic, the clinical microsystem has been the organizing framework for how I think about research and practice. The conceptual underpinnings of the microsystem are based on systems thinking, organizational development, leadership and process improvement. Most recently, I have become interested in “coproduction” and how we support frontline clinicians and patients to co-produce healthcare services. 

What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)?

For me, one of the things that I enjoy most about academia is the opportunity to work collaboratively with people within my department and the university, as well as the opportunity to build relationships with people in other research settings nationally and internationally.  My academic home is the Surgical Outcomes Quality Improvement Center (SOQIC), where I am a co-investigator on several SOQIC grants, in particular a grant funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality with Dr. Karl Bilimoria to evaluate the Illinois Surgical Improvement Collaborative (ISQIC) and several NIH grants with Dr. Jonah Stulberg related to reducing surgical prescribing of opioids. Within Northwestern, I am also a co-investigator on a AHRQ-funded grant with Dr. Kevin O’Leary to redesign inpatient units caring for medical patients.

Beyond my Northwestern colleagues, I have had the opportunity to live and work in the United States, the Netherlands, and Australia, and I have led research projects in those countries. This has given me a unique perspective on international health systems, in addition to helping build a strong network of international research colleagues and ongoing opportunities. For example, I have been working with U.S. colleagues at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and in the Netherlands at Radboud Medical Center in Nijmegen on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded project on patient experiences and outcomes integrating social and medical services for chronic conditions. In that study, we are examining social and medical services through a lens of coproduction. 

Where has your work been published?

My research has been published in a variety of journals: JAMA Surgery, Journal of Surgical Research, BMJ Open, Journal of Hospital Medicine, etc. Essentially, I target journals that publish quality improvement and patient safety manuscripts. 

Who inspires you? Or, who are your mentors?

One of my most important mentors has been Dr. Paul Batalden, who is Professor Emeritus of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice at Dartmouth College — he’s been a mentor since 1993! Paul is one of the early pioneers in quality improvement in the U.S. and I have learned so much from him about the importance of connecting research to practice and he continues to connect me to interesting ideas.  It’s been interesting to reflect on how our mentoring relationship has changed over the past 25+ years. It’s definitely an experience that I draw on as I mentor, support or even offer to help more junior colleagues.