An applied sociologist by training, Dr. Laura N. Gitlin grew up fascinated with the ways people and their families – including her own family – adapt to adversity and interact with the health care system.
Today, that fascination has transpired into a number of psychosocial environmental home and community-based interventions the researcher-practitioner has developed with interprofessional teams to address serious health conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, chronic disease management and other health challenges that aging adults often face.
In her critical research on aging, Gitlin has worked with nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, social workers, geriatricians, general psychiatrists, physician assistants and more. Her work challenges the health system to understand people in their environments and how their access to food, proper nutrition and social engagement, for instance, are all as critical as, or even more important than, monitoring their blood pressure or providing the appropriate medication, she says.
“I learned very early that it isn’t one profession and that people need a lot of different things,” says Gitlin, Distinguished University Professor and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University. “I think that’s what keeps us going when you can connect to a passion that is relevant to one’s own background.” Gitlin adds that, as a researcher, it is rewarding to come across an “aha” moment when the data uncovers something that has never been understood before. Even further, she enjoys making a difference by introducing particular health care strategies and receiving feedback and comments from health studies participants about their care.
“It’s quite a thrill,” she says. “You’re collecting the data, but you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and then if the results are good – and even negative findings can be informative – there’s nothing like it. It kind of keeps you going and it’s very, very rewarding.”
Gitlin received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Temple University and a master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from Purdue University.
She is the current chair of the Health and Human Service’s advisory council for the National Alzheimer’s Project Act and a recent appointee to the Alzheimer’s Association medical advisory board. She is also a member of the American Academy of Nursing, the American Occupational Therapy Association, the Gerontological Society of America, the New York Academy of Sciences and the international Lancet Commission on dementia care.
Prior to joining Drexel last year, Gitlin was the Isabel Hampton Robb Distinguished Professor in the Department of Community Public Health at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Here, she held joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry and Division of Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was the founding director of the Center for Innovative Care in Aging at the university’s nursing school.
Gitlin’s appointment as dean of Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions ushered in a moment for the university to enhance community health care access and expand resources for “cutting-edge” research, according to Drexel’s provost Dr. M. Brian Blake. The college is expanding the information students are exposed to by experimenting with various simulation cases that address multidimensional aspects of the care of older adults, for example, and different interprofessional educational opportunities and real-life exposure, placing students in an array of community settings, Gitlin adds. Additional projects include ways to develop students’ competencies around how they identify and assess a family caregiver’s needs and how healthcare professionals can enhance or extend the services of other healthcare providers.
“We’re in an experimental mode right now,” Gitlin says, noting that the new health professional has to know how to work on a team and know how to be a leader while also working on a team.
Moreover, this “new health professional” has to understand the role of social-determinants in healthcare regardless of their specific profession, Gitlin emphasizes. Individuals must also be able to identify or screen those over the age of 75 who may be experiencing cognitive changes; reconcile conflicting or contradictory viewpoints and preferences among a patient’s family members; understand what aging means in terms of various kinds of medications; and, significantly, understand the link between what is happening to a person from a medical perspective and what the consequences are for their ability to function at home, Gitlin notes.
Gitlin envisions her legacy to be one that enhances the excellence of Drexel’s curriculum in order for students to master these competencies. In addition, she hopes that knowledge of how to use the programs she has developed over her career – such as the “Skills2Care” program and “Tailored Activity Program” – will become integrated into the classroom and used wisely in the healthcare system.
“Some of these programs have been disseminated and used in different countries and they are being used in different states, but I want them to become part of routine care,” she says.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon