Headshot of Kenrick Cato

Faculty Profile: Kenrick Cato, PhD, Associate Research Scientist

Kenrick Cato is an associate research scientist whose research is focused on clinical informatics. Prior to entering the ETP program, Cato worked as a computer programmer.

In 2001, he entered the military full-time after being inspired to serve his country after the 9-11 attacks. He left the army after several active duty deployments including stints in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. After completing the ETP program at Columbia Nursing in 2008, he worked as a staff nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital providing care for surgical oncology patients and as a clinical analyst, working on projects to improve patient safety through the use of the hospital’s electronic systems. Cato earned his PhD at Columbia Nursing in 2012. His research interests include mobile health and reducing health disparities in underserved populations.

Q. You are a highly skilled computer programmer and a veteran. With your varied background, why did you decide to pursue a career in nursing? And specifically, why nursing informatics?  

A: I have been interested in technology and healthcare since I was a child. My mother is a retired nurse who worked in various settings including the emergency department. I used to beg her to take me with her to work with her because I loved being in the healthcare environment. In college, I was pre-med, but I didn’t want to become a doctor. I wanted a more hands on role in patients’ care. But for some reason, it never occurred to me to become a nurse!

After I returned from the army, I started taking pre-med classes again and I told a friend who was a nurse practitioner that I was interested in the intersection of healthcare and technology. She suggested that nursing informatics would be a good fit for me and she was right. Columbia Nursing was the first school I applied to, because of their strong informatics program. After I got my license as an RN, I worked as a nurse on the oncology floor at night and took a day job programming on a research project done by Leanne Currie, ’04. Leanne encouraged me to get a PhD in informatics, as I was originally only getting a Masters. And then Suzanne Bakken (Professor of Biomedical Informatics) spoke to one of my classes. I fell in love with her teaching; it all came together for me.

Q: You served in active combat in multiple deployments. How did your experiences in wartime translate to your experience serving patients in a hospital setting?

A: In the infantry, just like in nursing, you are actively involved in life and death situations. The lives of your fellow soldiers are in your hands. If you don’t do your job well, you could be killed or someone on your team might be killed.
In combat and in the hospital, you have to be able to do the technical parts of your job well. You learn to instantly prioritize the next important thing that needs to be done. And of course, you learn how to serve other people in very stressful situations. It’s very team-oriented in the infantry, you don’t think about a task in terms of doing it yourself, but rather, you view it as a team member, taking care to make sure other team members aren’t over- burdened. When I first became a nurse, one of my tasks was bathing patients. All of the nurses were bathing patients on their own, and some needed help lifting the larger patients. So I instituted a team approach on the hospital floor—and encouraged the nurses to team up to wash the patients faster.

Leadership is another skill that I took from combat to the hospital floor. When I worked in oncology, I found myself often advocating for pain management for my patients. This took leadership to treat the patient and deal with other members of the team.

Q. One focus of your research is mHealth—the use of mobile technologies for healthcare purposes. MHealth has great potential for patients to improve self-management of chronic illnesses. How do you think mHealth supports the care of patients from a nursing perspective?

A: When I think of my role as a nurse, I see myself having two missions. First, I need to use my clinical knowledge to help a patient improve their health status. Second, and just as important, I need to pass that clinical knowledge on to the patient so that they can be a better steward of their own health status. mHealth tools are very exciting because they can do both of these things for the patient without the nurse being present.

Q: How can nurses address the health concerns of returning veterans?

A: It’s fairly obvious that war is an intense experience, but as a nurse, being overly concerned about the veteran experience will only get in the way. Keep things simple: When a nurse is working with a veteran, they should be concerned with some of the basic health concepts. From the outside, most veterans, especially the more recent ones, appear to be pretty healthy. But when you ask questions like how many hours of sleep do you get each night, what is your drug and alcohol use, and how do you relate to people close to you, unhealthy issues can quickly emerge.

Video: Kenrick Cato, I Am A Columbia Nurse