No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Maureen Benjamins, PHD. Maureen is an Epidemiologist at Sinai Health System on the West Side of Chicago, IL. Maureen’s work focuses on providing research, data, and recommendations to improve health outcomes for at-risk populations in Chicago and beyond.
G: What exactly is an Epidemiologist and what does your job entail?
M: As an Epidemiologist, I do research on diseases and risk factors for diseases across populations. We do a lot of studies looking at local and national data to understand disparities in health.
G: You have been at Sinai Health System for 13 years. What is it about working at Sinai that has kept you involved over the years?
M: Sinai is really unique. It is a safety net hospital system, serving the poorer communities on the west and southwest side of the city. They have four hospitals, The Sinai Community Institute, which provides community social services, and then the Sinai Urban Health Institute, which is where my work is done. There are not many examples nationally of safety net hospital systems that also invest money in research on and within the community, which makes it even more unique.
G: How is the research funded?
M: The system supports some of our work, but most of my work is supported by grants. We are constantly writing proposals, submitting them, and trying to get funding to cover ourselves and our teams. In the past I have gotten grants from The American Cancer Society, and Chicago Community Trust. We appeal to a lot of local organizations, but we are always hoping to get more national funding. It’s a bigger pot.
G: Tell me more about some of the work that you have done thus far and what are some of the key findings in the population that you serve.
M: I worked initially on a health survey within the Orthodox Jewish Community on the North Side of Chicago. What that study found was a huge prevalence of childhood obesity, even bigger than the city averages. That was really surprising to that community, so we were able to develop a program that they could implement within their private school system. I spent many years running that childhood wellness program. Another big project was working on The Sinai Community Health Survey, which we have done twice. The most recent one focused on the southwest and west sides, and showed that you have to look within the individual communities, not just city-wide data for behaviors and risk factors. The city provides data on mortality rates, but they don’t have much data on the specifics within each community and that’s what our data showed for the first time.
The findings were incredibly sad in a lot of the cases. The levels of food insecurity is just one example. In some areas there are 40 percent of households reporting not having enough food to eat. A lot of the communities had really high rates of intimate partner violence. And the difference between the communities was really striking, so we found that to be really important. For example, the city- wide average for smoking rates within the community could be 15-20 percent. But in some Chicago communities, about 50% of adults smoke. So it helps the city to focus more on who needs what help in what areas, and I think that has been some of our most important work.
G: That’s amazing. How is this research then used to impact these communities? What do you do with the data that you find?
M: We try with all of our work to create a data dissemination plan so that the data both goes back to the community involved as well as advancing science in general, like in scientific and medical journals. For the first survey we wrote a book, which is used in schools of public health and medical schools throughout the city today. We talk a lot in the medical community locally about our Chicago data. We have studied a lot of the social factors and how they relate to health. Things like discrimination and religion, and those finding are interesting because not that many people are studying how those factors influence health. We got a lot of media hits and interviews for the health survey data because it was new and expensive and hard to get scientifically. A lot of people are very interested in those findings and will be for years because no one else is collecting that right now.
G: You mentioned The American Cancer Society work that you have done. What can you tell me about that project and your findings?
M: We were looking at discrimination and how that influences whether or not people get cancer screenings. The communities that we work in are predominantly minority. The different groups of minorities within these communities have different reasons of why they might feel discriminated against and have high levels of mistrust within the system, whether its historic or based on nativity and immigration status. A lot of people are reporting that they feel discriminated against when they see their doctor and then they are not getting the preventive screenings that they need, which leads to health problems down the road. It helps us to understand some of the factors of why minorities have poorer outcomes compared to the white population.
G: Given that you are seeing all of this data reflecting the needs in these communities, and how these communities are affected by issues such as discrimination and poor health outcomes, how do you deal with the difficult and sad findings?
M: That part can be really hard. Over and over we are reporting about how these communities have high levels of almost every problem. The extent of that gets pretty sad. When you drive through these communities and see that almost every other house doesn’t have enough to eat at the end of the month, it can be really discouraging. But then I see the Community Health Workers out in these communities, day after day. They are coming back with stories about how they convinced a few women to get their first mammograms, or worked with parents on how to control their kids’ asthma symptoms. They see the positive changes in the health of the individuals and that helps to balance that out.
G: What I love about what you just said is that there is a direction connection between the research and how it comes back to serve the individual. At the end of the day it is helping those who are having a health crisis hopefully, right?
M: Usually in research we are at our computers a lot during the day, so we don’t get to see how our work impacts individuals. When we do get to see that it’s neat. We did a huge series of studies on disparities of mortality between blacks and whites at the city level, which hasn’t been done before. It started with breast cancer, and we found that Chicago was one of the worst. We had this huge gap where blacks were way more likely to die than whites, and what is interesting is that some major cities don’t have any disparities like that. We also looked at heart disease, prostate cancer, diabetes and stroke. What we found is that those disparities don’t have to exist. It’s something about the structure of how our cities are organized that leads to these disparities that we need to change. So now we are working on a plan to target that problem based on the cities that are doing well in that area. So, the optimistic message is that it can be fixed.
G: What is a typical day like for you?
M: We are pretty lean and don’t have a lot of resources so many of us write proposals, manage the studies, manage the budgets, and do the hiring. We also do our own statistical analyses and then write up the finding so there is always a lot that we are juggling. I think one of the parts that I like the most is the teaching. I run an internship program and I am teaching the medical students to understand that medicine is not just about treatment regimens and medications, but that most things that influence peoples’ health are non-medical and outside the clinical healthcare system. It’s amazing and eye opening to them. We take them on tours and introduce them to community health care workers. You can see where down the road that makes them a better physician. And then who knows how many more people they can help with that understanding?
G: There are a lot of challenges in your job. How do you overcome those or deal with those? What keeps you motivated and inspired to show up every day?
M: Among my team, there is a real sense of comradery and we all know we are in it for the same reason. Generally, if you work at Sinai you are pretty mission-driven, because there are so many places right down the street where you could have nicer accommodations and more resources. So, it’s nice to work with a group of really committed people. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. And just bringing it back to the wins. The feel-good stories that we get every once in a while.
G: Outside of your job, you are a busy mom of three. What are some of your personal habits or strategies to help you juggle it all?
M: Friends are survival for me; finding other women that I admire who are doing jobs that are tough and are admirable parents and wanting to work toward what they are doing. Trading ideas with other Moms has been super helpful for me. I have been trying to get better at self- care, so I have gone back to playing volleyball recently. Making time to visit my Grandma or going on walks, that kind of thing. I have been trying hard to not go on Pinterest and see what I am not doing well, but just hitting on all of the important things; kids, husband, friends, personal health.
G: Juggling it all today for people is so hard. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
M: One thing that I think is really important about my job is that it is such a contrast to where I live and how I grew up. Driving in and out of here every day always makes me count my blessings. These communities need a lot of support; maybe they have no grocery stores or have high rates of violence. Seeing that on a daily basis helps me remember to be grateful for what I have. Working with many of the people that I do is inspiring to me, so it has helped me to change my mindset. When you grow up in a small town in Southern Indiana, you have this idea of how the world works. And then when I got here to Lawndale after many, many years of school, I realized that’s not how it works. People aren’t poor just because they make bad choices. They aren’t unhealthy because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because of what was offered to them, and their range of choices are not the same as my range of choices. It reminds me constantly that you cannot judge unless you yourself have been there.