Before she was a nurse, mentor or scholar, Carrington had a fascination with the human body.
“I remember as a kid going to bed, instead of counting sheep, I would go through in my mind the system of the human body and how it functions,” Carrington said. “Every night was a different system. As I got older, I tried to disprove math theorems, which put me to sleep right away, and then I started incorporating the disease process in my mind’s review.”
In high school in Minnesota, she worked at a long-term care facility on the weekends, never missing a shift. Her mother suggested she pursue nursing as a career, but Carrington resisted because she did not think she was smart enough to be a nurse. Instead, she attended the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and earned a degree in physical education and health in 1982. Carrington started as a student teacher in a rural community, but she ran into administrative red tape when she wanted to do more for the kids who did not have appropriate, warm clothing or proper food to eat.
After a couple years, her next move was to Arizona, where she finally admitted her mother was right and pursued a nursing degree. She took a position in pediatric intensive care, where she thought she could do more to help children in need.
“After about five years, Carrington’s nurse manager told her that it was time to return to school because there was no longer enough to challenge her in the hospital. So Carrington pursued her master’s in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Arizona.
Carrington worked in pediatrics for a time before applying for an informatics position as a clinical analyst, one of few nurses in that type of analyst position. Thus, her love of informatics took hold.
“I honestly did not even know what informatics was before becoming an analyst,” Carrington said. “But after that, I was hooked and decided to return to school for a doctoral degree in informatics from the University of Arizona.”
Her research has focused on using the electronic health record, or EHR, as a communications system among nurses. Specifically, Carrington has interviewed nurses to find out how they describe a clinical event in the EHR, and how they communicate nurse to nurse after sudden clinical changes in a patient.
“My work has studied communication in the EHR, getting down to the words nurses are using to describe clinical events,” she said. “We want to understand how nurses communicate, the language they use, how they use the EHR and how often.”
The goal? Redesigning the EHR to make it a better functioning system for communication instead of just documentation.
“Her research showed major gaps in communication through the EHR,” Effken said. “To study this, she found that she needed to use natural language analysis tools, which had not previously been used in nursing research, to be able to better understand the communications issue and perhaps suggest solutions. That led her to partner with experts in several technology fields for her research.”
After completing a six-month system assessment at UF, Carrington plans to establish an interdisciplinary consortium with researchers who share her common goal.
“If I have my way before I die, we will redesign the EHR and it will be based on science and cognitive factors, not based on a programmer with a commercial entity,” Carrington said. “If one patient will have a better outcome because of my research, I will consider myself successful.”
As co-director of the Florida Blue Center for Health Care Quality — a role she shares with Arch “Chip” Mainous, PhD, with the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions — Carrington will be charged with bringing new life to the center. The endowed chair and the center were established in 2007 in recognition of a gift by the Florida Blue Foundation. Housed in both the College of Nursing and the College of Public Health and Health Professions, the center’s purpose is to bring together interdisciplinary experts to design and evaluate improved approaches to health care access and delivery. To accomplish this, the center establishes programs with the goals of finding solutions to the widespread lack of affordable health coverage, addressing employment shortages in health care professions, enhancing delivery of high quality care, and creating community-based interventions that may reduce the need for hospitalization.
“The duality of this position as the endowed chair and the co-director of the center is enormous,” Carrington said. “Our goal is to see how to connect the dots to further advance health care, lower health care costs and enhance health care quality. My hope is that better standards in Florida will spread nationally, so that other places can benefit from what we are discovering.”