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Russell's community-engaged research connects healthcare and performing artists

Russell's community-engaged research connects healthcare and performing artists
Jeff Russell works with students during an emergency simulation

Dr. Jeff Russell is an associate professor of athletic training in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, but, his patients are not the typical sports athletes many imagine. Dr. Russell is the director of the Clinic for Science and Health in Artistic Performance (SHAPe Clinic), and he specializes in working with another kind of athlete--performing artists. At SHAPe, Russell and his colleagues offer treatment and health and wellness advice to dancers, musicians, actors, theater production personnel and the Marching 110 here at Ohio University.

To better understand topics like injuries, access to healthcare, and mental health among this population, Dr. Russell leads an active research agenda within SHAPe, and nearly all of his research is community-engaged. He works alongside members of the stunt performance, circus, and dance communities who serve as co-investigators on several research projects.

Dr. Russell’s work is driven by the gap in the field related to the study of healthcare specifically for dancers and other performing artists. “I used to think, ‘When is someone going to do research about healthcare and other benefits for performers that aren’t being provided well enough?” said Russell. Ultimately, he determined that if no one was going to do it, then he would, and his passion for this work is palpable.

Four projects are going to be underway or completed this spring, focusing on the issues of concussions, injuries, and sexual harrassment in the performing arts industry. Dr. Russell’s community co-investigators are film and television stunt performers, commercial dancers, university dance team coaches, and healthcare providers embedded in performing arts companies. On various projects, they work together to conduct research and collect data within their local communities as well as within their networks of partners all over the U.S., and even in other countries. These key community-based collaborators provide the connections and technical information needed to support the research. 

One of Dr. Russell’s research partners is Melissa McGhee, the head coach for the 2020 college dance team national champion, The Ohio State University Dance Team. The project emerged due to McGhee’s interest in the physical intensity and injuries associated with this athletic style of dance, as well as broader conditions in the field. He works with McGhee and three other community members to gather activity and injury data to form the foundation for improved healthcare for dance teams across the country.

Two other partners in his dance medicine research are Li Li Hodge and Rithiely Pereira, co-founders of the international advocacy group Dancers Network. According to Dr. Russell, “Dancers in the commercial industry are not paid well, and some of their working conditions are not good—many of the dancers don’t have basic healthcare if they are injured.” He hopes that this research will change these conditions for the better.

Another community partner Dr. Russell works closely with is Cirque du Soleil on the topic of concussion risk and head impacts in circus performing artists. He, one of his athletic training graduate students, and their community co-investigators inside Cirque are studying nine years of data about concussions in the high energy circus company, including how often these injuries happen and how they are treated. He also recently published the first article that looked at concussion risk in stunt performers in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics in North America.

The goal of Dr. Russell’s research is to make a difference in the performing arts medicine field to protect and advocate for performers. “Community engaged research is essential in the medical and scientific aspects of performing arts,” he said. For problems to be addressed, they first must be recognized, and publication of studies like Dr. Russell’s can help bring light to important challenges people are facing. In order to fully understand the issues within communities and have the opportunity to access and collect data, co-investigators are essential. Community partners are actively involved in every stage of Dr. Russell’s community-engaged projects, from the initial planning phase to serving key research functions, including framing of research survey questions, securing required community permission letters, recruiting participants, analyzing results, and preparing research dissemination materials.

Dr. Russell sees great value in community-engaged research methods, and said that grassroots engagement, “allows for all parties to contribute our research,” thus increasing accessibility into the community being studied and yielding more accurate and authentic data collection to better understand root challenges and determine how to move forward purposefully.

Dr. Russell also provides opportunities for students to participate in his community-engaged research. Currently, nine students in the Master of Science in Athletic Training program and two Honors Tutorial College students work with him on projects focused on concussions, injuries, and healthcare access in performing arts. He believes that having students involved is crucial real-world experience for the students and at the same time, the students are directly impacting people through their engagement with the research.

Dr. Russell sees community engagement as a powerful tool for creating positive change, and community-engaged research as an important starting point that can shed light on significant issues. In this case, the lack of studies focused on healthcare needs among performing artists and stunt performers inhibits the development of any positive, data-driven policy changes within organizations and the entertainment industry. He stressed that the community has to remain at the center of the work. “It can’t be about us as researchers,” he said. “It has to be about the communities.”

“Without research to recognize required changes, the communities can’t receive what they need,” he said. Dr. Russell hopes his research group’s work can serve to fill this gap and provide the basis for better healthcare for members of the performing arts community.