Pauline Voon is a Registered Nurse, Research Associate with the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), former Associate Director of the BCCSU Addiction Nursing Fellowship, and Doctoral candidate at the UBC School of Population and Public Health, where she holds the Trudeau and Vanier scholarships.
How or when did you first become interested in nursing?
Growing up, I always had the idea of working in the field of health care in the back of my mind. I wanted to be in a helping profession through which I could make a meaningful contribution to people’s lives. Nursing stood out to me as a compelling option to do just that. In high school, I had a job as a radiology clerk and volunteered at local clinics for cancer patients and veterans. I remembered seeing how nurses often spent the most time with patients, and I was inspired by the kindness, humility and compassion that I saw in them. I also noticed the emerging role of nurses as leaders in diverse fields ranging from health care administration to policy, research, and education. So, it seemed like an attractive option to enter such a rapidly growing field with a huge demand for leadership and huge potential to make big impacts in the community. Looking back, I think becoming a nurse was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
When did that lead to an interest in addiction research?
When deciding where I wanted to focus my nursing practice, I was drawn to the field of HIV/AIDS, as I was fascinated by its social justice roots. As a HIV nurse on the 10C Urban Health unit (formerly a specialized HIV/AIDS unit) at St. Paul’s Hospital and at the community-based Dr. Peter Centre, I worked with many people living with addiction. Injection drug use continues to be one of the major drivers of the global HIV pandemic, so there is often considerable overlap between populations with HIV and addiction. Also, since HIV is now a largely manageable condition with appropriate antiretroviral treatment, much of the clinical care for people living with HIV now tends to focus on other complex health issues, such as untreated addiction.
I have also had a longstanding interest in researching vulnerable and marginalized populations to better understand barriers to health and inform health policy and care. During my nursing studies, I received a CIHR Health Professional Student Research Award to assist with Dr. Jennifer Baumbusch’s research on health promotion among aging adults with intellectual disabilities. After graduating, I held a six-month internship with the Ethiopian Nurses Association, where I researched the occupational health and safety concerns of Ethiopian nurses. A few years later, when I learned about the opportunity to work as a Clinical Research Associate with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, I was excited to apply my experience working with people with HIV and addiction in a research setting. That is when I really started to plunge into the world of addiction research.
How does your background as a nurse shape your work as a researcher? Are there valuable crossovers between the two?
Definitely. My research stems from questions and observations from my nursing practice and discussions with other clinicians. Having a clinical background and an appreciation for the pharmacological, physiological, and systemic aspects of clinical care also helps to inform my research. At the same time, it is very rewarding to be able to interpret and translate my research findings and other scientific literature into everyday clinical care practices, education, and even policies and guidelines.
The value of clinician researchers is being recognized more and more. While clinician researchers have traditionally been physicians, I hope to be one of many future Nurse Scientists who can help bridge the gap between research and clinical care, and help advocate for evidence-based health policies and practices. There is a huge shortage and need for Nurse Scientists in general, but particularly in the field of addiction, which is an exciting and rapidly evolving area for research and care.
Tell me about the work that you do. What does it focus on and what kind of impact do you think it has?
My research focuses on the impact of chronic pain on individuals with a history of substance use or addiction—a population that is often burdened by a multitude of social, structural, economic and other barriers such as poverty, homelessness and complex physical and mental health concerns that may exacerbate chronic pain. Clinicians are challenged by a lack of evidence-based guidelines to treat pain in this population, and often simply deny pain medication due to concerns regarding dependence, overdose, misuse or diversion. Some of my research so far has found that individuals with a history of substance use who are denied pain medication often resort to self-managing their pain using heroin or pain medications bought off the street, which may put them at high risk for overdose.
Especially with the current public health crisis of opioid overdose deaths in North America, I hope that my research will help fill the void in research, evidence-based care and health policy related to concurrent pain and addiction. So far, I have had the privilege of being the lead writer of the provincial Guideline for the Clinical Management of Opioid Use Disorder and the brief report Together we can do this: Strategies to address British Columbia’s pharmaceutical opioid crisis, which called for collective policy action to address the public health harms related to prescription opioids in BC. I’ve also had the opportunity to share some of my research through presentations to the BC Ministry of Health, the US National Academies of Sciences, and through the media, such as an opinion editorial I published in the Globe and Mail. I hope that I can continue to help inform policies and practices that will promote evidence-based care for vulnerable populations.
Please read her Alumni Recognition Award bio.
Text adapted from the BC-CfE’s
“Q&A with Pauline Voon: Applying Nursing Knowledge to Research Fills a Need for Evidence-Based Care”:
Photo from cfenet.ubc.ca