Case study: Caroline's story
Research fellow and health psychologist
Simple tasks that are important to Caroline:
After graduating Caroline returned to focus on her main interest – health psychology. She now undertakes research to find out about patient experiences of rheumatoid arthritis, as learning from these experiences is vital for improving services and meeting the needs and expectations of people with rheumatic conditions.
Caroline completed a psychology degree, and followed this with a masters degree in health psychology. During this time, she developed an interest in the psychological impacts of long term conditions.
After gaining her MSc, Caroline returned to psychology, and embarked on a PhD focussing on how patients with rheumatoid arthritis manage their condition day to day and deal with flares. “I had no prior knowledge of rheumatic conditions before starting my PhD, and was intrigued by how relatively little was known and understood in this area”.
Caroline gained her PhD in October 2012 and is now a research fellow and psychologist in Bristol, investigating the particular experience of men with rheumatoid arthritis – who are a minority patient group.
The working life of an academic health psychologist:
I work in an academic office attached to a rheumatology clinic in a hospital. My team encompasses PhD students and other researchers, and the doctors and allied health professionals in the clinic. “One of the best things about psychology is the variety of research I get to undertake – literature reviews and reading, interviewing individual patients, running focus groups, and setting questionnaires.”
Discussing patient stories first-hand can be challenging. “Younger patients from 25 to 45 years of age often struggle with the diagnosis as their perception of arthritis is of an old person’s disease. Another common concern is that employers have little understanding of the condition and sometimes don’t believe that an employee is sick when they are having a flare.”
Through speaking with patients, Caroline is however able to appreciate the vast improvement in treatment that has already occurred. “Patients diagnosed over 20 years ago generally had bad experiences of diagnosis, because at the time they expected to end up in wheelchairs. Thankfully this is no longer a likely outcome.”
Caroline’s window of opportunity: giving patients a voice
Caroline is at the early stages of her current research, however she is motivated by the fact that her work will lead to the development of interventions that will improve clinical practice.
“On an individual level, patients are sometimes more comfortable speaking with me about their feelings and experiences than they are their doctor. I can then give anonymous feedback to the clinic to improve the service. And as a profession more widely, health psychologists like me are able to help identify the support the needs of patients and provide the evidence needed to change services for the better. This can have a huge beneficial impact on people’s lives.”
Caroline is sharing her story to help raise awareness of rheumatic conditions, because the patients she works with describe how hard it can be when family and employers don’t understand the physical and emotional toll of their condition.
The window of opportunity is key in finding the right treatment for millions of people with rheumatic conditions.
*If you are inspired by Caroline’s story, visit the "Take Action" section to learn about your window of opportunity to help.