Research group focused on Values Clarification Workshops on abortion earns 2022 Paster Award

A research group providing Values Clarification Workshops on abortion received the 2022 Paster Family Foundation Innovation Award. The work is being done as part of a team based in the lab of Laura Jacques, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. The group working on the project includes medical students, residents, faculty, the department communications manager, a statistician, and administrative support.

The annual Paster Award recognizes and encourages innovative discoveries that advance human health. It is open to any employee — faculty, staff or student employee — from SMPH, UW Health or the William S. Middleton Veterans Memorial Hospital (VA). It aims to lift up projects with the potential to improve the lives of people in Wisconsin, the United States and across the globe. The award directs $5,000 to the winning innovation each year.

The team adapted a concept called Values Clarification Workshops that utilizes a unique structure to facilitate a dialogue about a controversial or sensitive topic. First, participants fill out a questionnaire about their views on a topic. The respondents’ forms are then randomized and sent to a different participant. Similar to being part of a debate team that is assigned a topic and position, each participant must act as if those views are their own and participate in the group accordingly. For this work, the topic was abortion, and the participants were medical students on their clinical rotations at three Midwestern medical schools.

Elise Cowley presents research to an audience at a conference.
Elise Cowley, an MD/PhD student, presents this work at a conference.

Elise Cowley, an MD/PhD student in the lab of Karthik Anantharaman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Bacteriology, has helped with this work. While in the medical school portion of her training, she worked with Jacques in her obstetrics and gynecology clinical rotation. She started her PhD as the COVID-19 pandemic began and her PhD work stalled for a brief period so she reached out to Jacques about any projects that needed assistance. Cowley has been assisting with the work ever since, in addition to her laboratory research.

“It’s really a workshop to put you in someone else’s shoes,” Cowley says. “You are never in a position where you are outing your personal views and in a vulnerable position. It allows people a safe space to take on someone else’s values and opinions and forces you to think about why someone may hold those views. It’s unique and I’ve never seen abortion discussed in this way.”

Values Clarification Workshops on abortion have been shown to improve knowledge about abortion and decrease abortion stigma, the researchers say. They help participants examine their own values and attitudes about the topic and how those are influenced and intersect with beliefs, ideals and knowledge. This is vital because regardless of a physician’s individual beliefs on abortion, they have a duty to care for their patients who may have different views, past experiences, or current needs regarding abortion. While not every physician will perform abortions, they may see patients who have received abortions.

Several members of Dr. Jacques' group
Several members of the research group of Laura Jacques, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. The group includes people who have worked on the values clarification project.

Studies have shown that physician bias about the beliefs or past experiences of patients can be detrimental to patient care so medical educators use workshop approaches to help trainees address this and provide optimal patient care.

“People say that participating in these workshops is an extremely worthwhile experience,” Cowley says. “In our follow-up interviews, everyone spoke highly of having the ability to discuss abortion in a safe space like this. They believe it will help them with patient care as well because it allowed them to practice communication skills.”

The researchers’ work with more than 500 Midwestern medical students showed that after the workshop, students’ attitudes shifted toward being more supportive of abortion. The group is expanding the workshops to other medical trainees and healthcare workers.

“These sessions help students clarify their own beliefs about abortion and consider how those might impact patient care,” Jacques says. “They also help students access and learn ways to discuss abortion with colleagues and patients in a professional way. So it’s important for students to confront their own values and stigmas in workshops like this one.”