Nancy Bennett: A major force putting public health initiatives into action
By Arn J. Albertini
Too often, there’s a disconnect between the public health research world and the people on the frontlines delivering care to the community, said physician Nancy “Nana” M. Bennett.
She has spent most of her career trying to change that.
Many times, the academic world studies and recommends solutions to public health problems, but they rarely get implemented, said Bennett, 66.
Too often, academic institutions have a limited understanding of the public health challenges faced by communities, she added.
As director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Community Health, an organization she helped found, she works on the front lines, putting public health initiatives into action.
She is also co-director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of the University of Rochester. Bennett plans and implements research that provides new ideas on how to improve the health of the community.
The institute helps scientists conduct research and communicate with each other about their research across different fields, she said. It also works to seek and incorporate community input into university research projects.
Bennett is also chairwoman of the Centers for Disease Control’s advisory committee on immunization practices, which helps set immunization policy for Monroe County. She is on the faculty of the University of Rochester’s schools of medicine and public health. She has authored over 100 peer-reviewed articles and has been involved in numerous research projects throughout her career.
“Working with the community gives me a tremendous amount of joy. One of the things that really means a lot to me is that other center employees are really mission-driven,” Bennett said. “People work here because they really care about what they’re doing and that means everything to me.”
The Monroe County Medical Society recently awarded Bennett recently the Edward Mott Moore Physician Award for 2017 for her ongoing efforts to improve the health of the community as teacher, mentor and community leader.
“In these leadership roles, she has performed faultlessly and exhibited a role model of community involvement beyond her professional career that is respected and acknowledged by community leaders, physician peers and physicians in training,” a news release stated.
National, local leader
Bennett played a lead role in helping the URMC become one of the first academic medical centers to include improving the health of the community as a part of its core mission, said Mark Taubman, CEO of the medical center, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, and senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Rochester.
Part of what distinguishes Bennett is the breadth of her experience that spans both the clinical and research worlds, Taubman said.
“I think the critical element that Nana has is the ability to evaluate whether the approaches being used are working. When you have a limited amount of funding within the health care system, you don’t want people to be involved in community initiatives that sound good, but aren’t working.
“I think there are so many issues involved in how to deliver the best treatment. What’s needed is someone capable of making priorities.”
The ability to identify those programs that work along with Bennett’s understanding of which diseases affect some parts of the community more than others, especially those with limited access to health care, help her set those priorities, he said.
“She has a national reputation and an extensive level of experience and understanding of what are the issues,” Taubman said.
It was through Bennett’s efforts that Rochester has become a hub for studying infectious respiratory diseases.
Locally, she’s been a leader in efforts to reduce C diff (Clostridium difficile infection), a serious infection that occurs in hospitals and nursing homes.
As a result of that program, the area’s four hospitals saw a 34 percent drop in C diff cases, according to figures provided by the center.
“The experience, knowledge and history of engagement that Nana has with public health is significant,” said Wade Norwood, chief strategy officer for Common Ground Health. “Most of the great work done in public health, Nana has been part of.
“As a clinician, she really knows about what works to support healthy living on the human scale.”
Common Ground Health, a nonprofit that brings together health care, community and education sectors to work together on solutions to community health care problems, has collaborated with the Center for Community Health on a number of initiatives over the years. Norwood is co-chairman of a community advisory committee, convened by Bennett. This URMC-based committee brings together stakeholders from around the community and provides input for the center and Clinical and Translational Science Institute of the U of R.
When considering new initiatives, Bennett is always careful to think about context, he said.
When the center was reviewing a nationally renowned program for helping people cope with diabetes, Bennett recognized that the program may not be well received by the urban Latino community, Norwood said. “Instead of forcing the model to the participants, Bennett engaged with the participants to understand the cultural mismatch and developed an innovative program tailored to that population.
“That knowledge and insight is absolutely necessary.”
Bennett also has the ability to take part in discussions where’s there’s a wide range of opinions “and engage with gusto, contribute and learn,” Norwood said.
“She’s that type of dynamic person that engages and helps find common ground. She stands out as a medical center official who remains very skilled at engaging the community,” he added.
Fran Weisberg, president and CEO of United Way, met Bennett shortly after she had moved to Rochester.
Weisberg decided she wanted to have Bennett be her primary care doctor. “I wanted an energetic, dynamic and incredibly smart female doctor with great values,” Weisberg said.
But, before she got a chance to even have an appointment, Bennett called Weisberg personally to say that she couldn’t be her doctor because she was becoming the head of the county health department.
The two have worked together on numerous public health projects in various roles.
“When I think of Dr. Nana Bennett, I think of someone who is a real pass breaker, an innovator,” Weisberg said. “She has been a passionate, powerful force in increasing health equity and improving the health of the entire community. She is a real leader in this whole area on a local and national level.
“She was really ahead of the curve in all of this work.”
It’s rare to see someone deeply involved in the academic and research world also be passionate about being involved in the community, Weisberg said.
“She walks the walk and talks the talk. It’s not just case studies,” Weisberg noted. “Actually getting into the community and doing something, that’s powerful. That’s Nana Bennett.”
Drawing the line
One of the biggest challenges Bennett said she has grappled with as she juggles multiple responsibilities is leaving time for herself and her family.
About 20 years ago when Bennett was at the county health department, things got really busy for several years in a row. It was the time of the West Nile virus and then the anthrax scare, followed by smallpox vaccination, monkeypox, influenza vaccine shortages, severe acute respiratory syndrome and more, she said.
“I led the health department’s responses, which included the actual things we did to address the challenges, such as figuring out environmental protocols, creating health care personnel information systems, coordinating with multiple community organizations, setting up immunization programs, and implementing broad community education,” Bennett said.
“This included media relations, all on top of my normal responsibilities at the health department. By 2004, I was exhausted. On New Year’s Eve, I took stock of my life and realized I was missing out on my children’s childhoods — not entirely — but I just wasn’t as present mentally or physically as I wanted to be. I realized I would never get that time back. They couldn’t and wouldn’t wait for me,” she said.
Ever since, Bennett said she makes sure to leave time for herself and family, and that means setting aside work on evenings and weekends.
“I don’t think I have any innovative ways to manage my time other than just drawing the line and making time for family and myself,” she said.
Drawing that line is a challenge when you work in public health, she said. “You can never say, ‘My work is done.’ There’s always more to be done,” she said.
Besides making a point to make time for herself and her family, Bennett makes sure her colleagues and staff at the center does the same.
“Because our staff members are so mission-driven, they often put in long hours sometimes to the detriment of their personal lives,” she said. “We try very hard to encourage balance and to remind everyone that the work they do will still be there the next day, that they should make time for themselves and their friends and families, and that they will be more successful in their work if they attend to their own needs.”
Bennett grew up outside of Philadelphia and was raised as a Quaker. “I always wanted to make some contribution to make the world a better place,” she said.
She said her mother encouraged her to be a doctor because she liked science and math. “But, I was drawn into the humanities, which was common for girls in the 50s and 60s,” she said.
After high school, Bennett went to Sarah Lawrence College graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and literature.
For a time, she wanted to be a writer, but she decided she didn’t want to make a living as a writer.
“It wasn’t until after college that I thought about medicine again, probably because I knew another young woman who also returned to the sciences after her college degree,” Bennett said. “It was fairly uncommon in those days to do what is now called a post-baccalaureate pre-med program, but I managed to piece together all the courses I needed and successfully applied to medical school.”
Prior to her post-baccalaureate studies, she hadn’t taken a science class since 10th grade biology, she said.
Medicine provided her the opportunity to pursue many different interests, such as patient care, research, education and community.
“Medicine seemed like the perfect way to help people every day, but it was also a way to get involved in social justice,” she said.
While she worked on her pre-med studies, Bennett occasionally worked part-time as a waitress and as a receptionist at ad agencies.
She attended medical school at New York University, did her internal medicine residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and then trained in a fellowship in epidemiology at Columbia University. During her fellowship, Bennett studied why people were being hospitalized for severe high blood pressure.
“I learned that most of the cases did not have a physiologic reason for their condition,” Bennett said. “Rather, they had previously been diagnosed with hypertension but were not taking their medications for a number of reasons: lack of health education, lack of access to care and medications, unaddressed side effects, competing issues in their lives — in other words, social determinants.
“I tried to learn about ways to assess these issues and to see if there was a way to essentially classify and score them. I wrote a paper about the use of a variety of factors to essentially characterize a person’s social risks. This is still an area of inquiry and scholarship.”
While completing her fellowship, Bennett got a master’s degree in epidemiology.
She was also an assistant professor of medicine and taught at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
When Bennett first moved to Rochester in 1988, she was an attending physician at Genesee Hospital where she later created and serves as the director of the division of clinical epidemiology. She was also an assistant professor of medicine and a professor of public health at the U of R.
In 1992, Bennett became the deputy director of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, a post she held for 14 years.
In 2006, Bennett was recruited by Dr. Mac Evert, who was then CEO of URMC, to develop the community health mission of the URMC, which led to the opening of the center.
Right at home
Bennett and her husband, Rob, live in Brighton and have three grown daughters.
Raising their daughters in Brighton offered opportunities to participate in activities they might not have had access to in a larger community, Bennett said. The diversity of the community helped prepare them to live in larger communities such as where they now live, she said.
Until recently, all three daughters lived in New York City. One moved to Baltimore to start her residency training to become a physician, another moved to the Boston area to attend business school and the third remains in New York City, where she works as a consultant.
“We’re still very involved as a family,” said Bennett.
Besides spending time with her family, she enjoys reading, gardening, tennis, hiking and yoga.
Staying active hasn’t always been a priority, she said.
Bennett was an athlete in high school, but physical activity wasn’t a priority during college, medical school or residency for Bennett or any of her contemporaries.
“I have to work hard to get enough physical activity, but friends and family help,” Bennett said. “I have learned that doing activities with others is very helpful for my motivation, but I don’t always make the time to arrange for them. It’s an ongoing challenge.”
Bennett said her mother taught her to eat healthy. She “was a great cook and we ate a good balance of protein, fruits and vegetables,” Bennett noted.
With that foundation, it’s been easy to maintain a healthy diet throughout her life.
“In addition, my husband Rob is an excellent cook of mostly healthy food and my daughters are bigger food police than I am,” she said. “I tend to avoid processed foods and sweets, except chocolate of course.”
Bennett said she doesn’t have any specific professional goals.
“I am not a person who sets specific goals and tracks my progress toward them,” she said.
“I tend to wander a bit more and follow opportunities where they lead me. That being said, my primary goal is to ensure the success of the Center for Community Health and the commitment of the URMC to improving the health of the Rochester region. But again, it is not a destination, but rather the journey that drives us,” she said.
On the personal side, Bennett said she’d like to spend more time on creative writing, such as essays, short stories and perhaps memoirs.
“I also hope to stay healthy and active. I love to play tennis, hike, sail and garden and hope to be able to do those things indefinitely. I love the ocean and hope that it will be a part of my life forever,” she said.
Name: Nancy M. Bennett
Education: General medicine fellowship, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, New York City (1985); Master of Science degree in epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; chief resident, Bellevue Hospital, New York City (1984-1985); residency, Bellevue Hospital, New York City, (1981 to 1984); medical degree, New York University School of Medicine (1977-1981); Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and literature; post-baccalaureate pre-med studies, Sarah Lawrence College (1969-1973).
Personal: Bennett and her husband, Rob, have three grown daughters, Jessica, Eliza and Kate.
Hobbies: Spending time with family, reading, gardening, tennis, hiking, yoga, sailing, spending time at the ocean