Q&A: Laura N. Gitlin, Incoming College of Nursing and Health Professions Dean, Distinguished Professor

Laura N. Gitlin, PhD, joins Drexel from Johns Hopkins University.

Meet Laura N. Gitlin, PhD, the new dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP). Before coming to Drexel, she was the Isabel Hampton Robb Distinguished Professor in the Department of Community Public Health at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, holding joint appointments in the Department of Psychiatry and the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She was also the founding director of the Center for Innovative Care in Aging in the John Hopkins School of Nursing.

She doesn’t start at the University until Feb. 1, but she took the time to talk to Drexel Quarterly about her background, her professional experiences, her hopes for the College and why she’s excited to be able to walk to campus after years of commuting to Baltimore from Philadelphia.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself. What is your background?

A: I am an applied sociologist by training and have been a continuously funded National Institutes of Health researcher for the past 35 years. Throughout my career, I have been committed to exploring the connections between the health and life space of vulnerable people, including the homes and communities in which they live. To that end, this has included a range of interests from examining the impact of housing and home adaptations on daily functioning, the role of active engagement to address mood disorders, the role of families in the care of relatives and the impact of social determinants (including place, race/ethnicity and financial strain) on well-being.

Within these broad concerns, my specific programs of research focus on developing, evaluating and implementing novel interventions that modify intrinsic (e.g., coping strategies) and extrinsic (environmental) factors to address the complex health and wellness needs of older adults and their families. As more of us live longer and lead better lives, I believe there are tremendous opportunities to help ensure that individuals can fully participate in those activities they prefer and value, and that continued participation is essential for health and wellness.

More specifically, with interprofessional teams I have developed a wide range of interventions to address complex health conditions such as the clinical symptoms of dementia, chronic disease management, functional decline, depression and social isolation and other challenges associated with aging in place and family caregiving. I am particularly interested in the intersection of health and housing and how to address social determinants of health to improve the health and well-being of communities and, specifically, older adults and their families. Many of my team’s proven programs are being implemented worldwide. Another related focus has been on educating health and human service professionals in evidence-driven approaches for addressing issues of most concern to older adults — carrying out everyday activities of importance to them; and of most concern to family caregivers — maintaining a person’s quality of life and managing complex conditions in addition to self-management.

Q: What were you doing before you decided to come to Drexel?

A: I am a native Philadelphian and for close to 25 years I developed and ran various programs of research and became the founding director of the very productive Center for Applied Research on Aging at Thomas Jefferson University. I was also a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and worked closely with nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, physician assistants, rehabilitation specialists, physicians, social workers, neurologists — actually, I have worked with almost every health professional group including the creative art therapies and nutrition represented in the CNHP. 

During the past seven years, I have been at Johns Hopkins University as the Isabel Hampton Robb Distinguished Professor and founding director of the Center for Innovative Care in Aging.  This center focuses on the science of behavioral interventions, tests novel approaches for aging in place and conducts trainings in evidence-based programs.  

As a strong focus of my work has been on dementia care, I recently became the chair of the advisory council for the National Alzheimer’s Project Act that reports to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The council is responsible for generating recommendations to advance a comprehensive national plan for dementia.

Q: What made you want to come to Drexel and the College of Nursing and Health Professions?

A: As an applied researcher, my professional mission has always been to use research to transform the health and wellness of individuals and communities. I have always worked in settings that would enable me to connect directly to and collaborate with health and human services professionals and communities.

I was very attracted to Drexel’s mission of civic engagement — how this commitment drives its decision-making and serves as a pillar for education, research and practice. Additionally, Drexel’s co-op programs, online infrastructure to reach broad audiences and “use-inspired” research framework resonates with my professional mission and aligns well with my previous efforts and current and future professional goals. Throughout my career, I have worked with a wide range of health and human services professionals represented in CNHP, so I saw this position as a unique opportunity to enable transformative and purposeful impact.

I have been commuting to Baltimore for the past seven years, so I am happy to say that I will now be able to walk to work and keep up a healthier lifestyle — this was a factor as well in my decision to come to Drexel!

Q: What are some of your plans for CNHP?

A: I am going to start by actively listening and learning. Upon my arrival and during the first three months or so, I plan to meet formally and informally with staff, students, faculty and the leadership in CNHP, as well as others in the University at large and the communities in which CNHP practices. I plan to ask a lot of questions. It’s an important initial period of discovery. I want to learn about different challenges and opportunities from everyone’s perspectives and how best to assure continued excellence in, as well as purposively and thoughtfully expand education, practice, scholarship and research activities. 

From some of my initial exchanges so far, I see a lot of untapped potential; the need to connect the research, practice and education missions and activities more tightly; and the need to help CNHP develop a cohesive story about the amazing work being done by faculty, students and staff. I think CNHP is poised to lead national efforts in implementation science, community-based care and services, interprofessional education and novel approaches to ensuring health and wellness, as well as conducting health systems research and redesign.

Also, as we are living longer, nursing and health professional schools have an important responsibility and the opportunity to enable people to overcome obstacles to living productive and purposeful lives throughout the life course. How we educate the next generation of clinicians to understand and address the intersection of health and housing, social determinants of health, the central role of families and their life space in health care and so forth is critical.

Q: What are some of your hopes or goals for the school?

A: I am very impressed with the ambition and passion of CNHP students, faculty and staff to address complex health issues, including health inequalities and social determinants on health — like housing, education and the environment — and the use of creative therapies and novel interprofessional approaches to make people’s lives better. I see CNHP working out of a strong sense of purpose — that is, all of us are trying to make powerful and transformative contributions to the health and well-being of our communities, both from our respective disciplines as well as through interprofessional efforts. 

I believe CNHP can and should have a national and global presence and be fully recognized for its education, research and service work. For example, CNHP’s community-grounded clinical interprofessional practices can serve as learning laboratories for other cities and communities in this country and around the world. I want to see CNHP known as the premier place to learn how to be a nurse or other health professional, how to work as a member of an interprofessional care team, how to develop community-grounded health and wellness programs, how to addresses complex health challenges through interprofessional services and how to conduct and engage in impactful or use-inspired research and assure evidence becomes embedded in practices for diverse communities, all while addressing the needs expressed by communities.

Q: What about global activities?

A: I work closely with colleagues across the world, including in Asia, Latin America, Europe, Australia and Canada. Many of my proven programs in dementia care, depression and aging in place are being translated for implementation in different countries. I also co-developed a Massive Online Open Course, “Living with Dementia, Impact on Individuals, Families, Communities and Society,” that has had over 60,000 participants from over 170 countries and is available on demand. Global activities are important, as they teach you a lot about your own cultural biases and force you to learn the perspective of others. This is instructive for evolving and adapting theories, programs and clinical approaches to address the needs of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds and life circumstances. Lessons learned globally can help one work better locally, and at Drexel I hope to advance global connections and exchanges for our students, faculty and staff.

This story was published in the winter 2018 issue of Drexel Quarterly.