Nanette Benbow Details What It Takes to Create Meaningful Public-Academic Health Partnerships

Nanette Benbow, affiliate faculty member at ISGMH and research assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern, presented on her work on January 21 as part of ISGMH’s annual Affiliate Showcase.

Benbow’s lecture on “Establishing Academic/Public Health Partnerships: Examples in the HIV Field” detailed best practices for establishing long-lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships among public health departments, researchers, and community organizations.

Benbow, who spent three years at the Chicago Department of Health as Deputy Commissioner, began her presentation by defining public health and the efforts of public health bodies. Public health is an organized activity of society to promote, protect, improve, and restore the health of individuals, specified groups, or the entire population, explained Benbow. “It is a combination of science, skills, and values that function through collective societal activities and involve programs, services, and institutions aimed at protecting and improving the health of all people,” she said.

Benbow argued that the role of partnerships in HIV research is particularly important because health departments are stewards of federal, state, and city funds. As stewards of funding, they are able to design, target, and implement HIV prevention and treatment interventions. In order to significantly impact the HIV epidemic, these departments rely on strong collaborations with external partners to implement comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment plans for their jurisdictions and to reach “Ending the HIV Epidemic” timeline goals.

Benbow described what she considers the best practices for establishing these partnerships:

  • Analyze who is needed and required for research success, such as community stakeholders, clinicians, and health department leadership
  • Learn and work through establishing trust
  • Search for mutual self-interest
  • Form an operation group with oversight

Because of the tendency of academic institutions to neglect collaborators post-collaboration, Benbow emphasized that it is paramount to build trust and maintain relationships over time. As an example, Benbow discussed the End HIV Scientific Working Group (SWG) created by the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research in 2016. The goal of SWG was to identify, prioritize, and implement new research informed by, and in collaboration with, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). The subsequent research agenda would seek to improve the cascades of HIV prevention and care—particularly for those who are at highest risk or infected in Illinois.

To accomplish this, the partnership was established early on by including health department HIV leadership input in the writing of the original TC-CFAR grant application in 2014. Once funded, the faculty of Third Coast CFAR met regularly to learn about health department priorities and research needs. After reviewing collective knowledge and HIV agenda goals in 2016, the group identified key areas of interest: PrEP, retention of HIV care, optimal combination prevention approaches, HIV among African American women, evidence-based interventions and implementation research, and innovative data analysis to better understand the local Chicagoland epidemic. The collaboration resulted in a successful, jointly hosted Symposium with CAR, CDPH, IDPH, and community partners with the goal of identifying research and service priority areas, highlighting challenges and successes, and setting next steps for this work.

Benbow concluded her presentation by encouraging future collaborations: “We need to keep the conversation going. Partnerships need nourishment.”

You can read more about Benbow’s work here. You can also watch a recording of the lecture here.

Frank J. Palella Jr. also presented at the Affiliate Showcase on the power of observational data in HIV/AIDS research. Read about his talk here.