Meet Our Faculty: In this Rutgers Global Health Institute content series, we highlight our core faculty members.
Throughout her career, Shawna Hudson has been interested in the workings – and dysfunctions – of the U.S. health care system, especially as they relate to the health outcomes of people within vulnerable populations. As a health services researcher trained in medical sociology, she’s chosen to focus her work on primary care because “it’s a patient’s entrée into the medical system,” she says. “It’s the point of screening, it’s where coordination among medical subspecialties is critical, and it’s a point of leverage to address health disparities.”
Hudson’s emphasis on examining health inequities through a sociological lens aligns with her role as a core faculty member of Rutgers Global Health Institute, which she’s been involved with for several years. Her latest ventures, as the newly named vice chancellor for dissemination and implementation science at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences and the senior associate dean for population health research at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, also will call upon her background in studying the health care experiences of low-income populations, people of color, and cancer survivors.
Other Rutgers Roles
- Professor, Vice Chair of Research, and Henry Rutgers Chair of Family Medicine and Community Health, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
- Director, Center Advancing Research and Evaluation for Patient-Centered Care, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
- Co-director of Community Engagement, New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science
- Research Member, Cancer Prevention and Control Program, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
- Core Faculty, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research
A Health Researcher without a Traditional Health-Related Degree
Hudson didn’t start out with the intention to focus on medicine. As an undergraduate at Rutgers, she was drawn to sociology.
“I was interested in observing the world,” she says. Sociology offered her a way to understand the systems that she says dictate, in a sense, how the world works – at least the human parts of it. It wasn’t until she was in graduate school (she received both her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from Rutgers) that she became deeply interested in viewing medicine through a sociological lens.
While working with the former Rutgers Center for the Promotion of Health among Elderly African Americans in New Brunswick, she witnessed firsthand how, even in a city known as a hub for health care, the center’s aging Black patients experienced health outcomes that didn’t measure up to those of their white counterparts. For Hudson, who herself is Black, it was a realization underscored by personal experience.
“A number of my family members have had major health issues: cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. My mother died from lung cancer, and my dad is a prostate cancer survivor. I’ve witnessed their struggles with the health care system and what it took for them to work through it,” she says. She remembers thinking, “The medical system is broken. How do we start to make it better for all of us?”
That question changed the focus of her career. Medical sociology, she says, “is concerned with the relationship between social factors and health and with the application of sociological theory and research techniques to questions related to health and the health care system.” This line of inquiry gave her the opportunity to study how ethnicity and socioeconomic status influence health care access and quality. She also came to realize that her calling was to apply such research in real-world settings.
“Sociologists are good observers, but we don’t intervene,” she says. “I wanted to be an interventionist to make sure that the work that I did was going to have an impact in life.”
Traditionally, many research fields largely have rewarded individual endeavors, according to Hudson. But the pandemic changed that, rapidly and dramatically, she says. Because of all the social factors involved, researchers needed to work fast to address issues that literally involved life and death for large swaths of the population, including the communities of color that experienced a disproportionately heavy toll.
That kind of work, Hudson says, requires a team.
“I was engaged in some team-based work before the pandemic,” she says, “but now the majority of the work I do involves bringing teams together to address big problems.” For the last couple of years, she’s served in two working groups for the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. One group sought a way to address whole health for veterans, a term the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) uses to describe a more personalized approach to health care, and the other is addressing how to implement high-quality primary care.
“It’s really about the teams,” she says, “about bringing different perspectives to bear on how we make systems work.”
Moving into the Future
As Rutgers’ vice chancellor for dissemination and implementation science, Hudson is now leading and collaborating in the recruitment of researchers into all the schools at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences – people who have “a focus and passion for intervention-focused, evidence-based science that will contribute to bringing about health equity,” she says.
Hudson also cares about helping those at the beginning of their careers. “For myself,” she says, “it’s about bringing along the next generation of people who are curious and want to do research that’s action oriented, and giving them the skills to move forward.”
If any of those future researchers would ask Hudson for advice on how to advance, she’d tell them to be curious, ask questions, and accept the inevitability of uncertainty.
“I think uncertainty actually allows you to think creatively and explore different opportunities,” she says. She’s not a supporter of hewing to a straight path. “I never would have said I’m going to be a sociologist, let alone a sociologist in a medical system, or a professor running dissemination and implementation studies. My career has not been a straight path by any stretch of the imagination.” And that’s been a benefit both to Hudson and to the communities she studies and serves.
– Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Top photo: The background illustration is from the Implementing High-Quality Primary Care report created by a National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine committee that included Shawna Hudson as a member.