Nancy “Nana” Bennett, Champion of Community Health and Disease Prevention, Retires

Nov. 1, 2023

Nancy “Nana” Bennett, MD, MS, professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center, is retiring after a four-decade-long career. As a nationally recognized expert in disease prevention, immunization, health equity, and community health, Bennett has made tangible contributions to science and to improving the health of our local and regional community.

Among many achievements, Bennett is the founding director of the Center for Community Health & Prevention, which manages a wide variety of programs and initiatives that prevent disease and improve the health of our community. Bennett considers the founding and success of the Center as one of the greatest achievements of her illustrious career.

“Dr. Bennett is widely viewed as one of this region’s most influential community health leaders and is a pioneer in studying and striving for health equity,” said URMC CEO Mark Taubman, MD. “Long before our broader society recognized the vast inequities in health across our nation and the world, Nana was doing the yeoman’s work of connecting with and advocating for marginalized populations.”

Since 1988, Bennett has led studies to improve vaccination rates among various vulnerable populations. Over the years, she has uncovered racial inequities in the incidence of disease and tested many innovative approaches to promote equitable vaccination against pneumococcal disease, flu, HPV, and COVID-19 among pediatric and older adult populations.

“Dr. Bennett has been a key, forward-looking colleague of the Department of Medicine since she joined the University in 1988,” said Paul Levy, MD, who served as chair of the Department of Medicine from 2009 to 2019. “Over her distinguished career at URMC, she has shaped regional as well as national strategies in public health and the control of infectious disease, especially with regard to vulnerable populations. It's an impressive number of faculty and trainees that owe a portion of their success to her leadership and selfless mentoring.”

Bennett also helped evaluate and shape national recommendations for many other vaccines as part of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a group of medical and public health experts who advise the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and develop recommendations for the use of vaccines. After serving as a voting member of the committee for four years, Bennett was selected as committee chair in 2015—a testament to her national leadership in the field.

"[Nana’s] leadership of the committee helped build the foundation that allowed the committee to address the unprecedented pace and complexity of recommendations issued during the COVID pandemic,” said Anne Schuchat, MD, former principal deputy director of the CDC. “She brought perspectives of community health, general medicine, and public health disciplines to bear and emphasized the importance of careful evidence reviews. These efforts were all important to building the credibility of the ACIP."

Leader in COVID Community Response

Bennett has also helped lead vaccination efforts a little closer to home. In December 2020, she was chosen by Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Monroe County Department of Public Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza, MD, to co-chair the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, alongside Common Ground Health CEO Wade Norwood. She also provided leadership for the URMC Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Hub. Made up of nearly 60 regional leaders from nine Finger Lakes counties, the task force successfully vaccinated over 70 percent of eligible adults in the region, ensuring equity, transparency, and efficiency in the process.

“Nana is a nationally recognized expert with a wealth of experience in medicine, research, public health, and immunization practices,” said Mendoza. “She has long demonstrated her commitment to equity in health care and prevention, focusing much of her efforts on underserved communities and her contributions were critical to our success as we strived to protect our entire community against COVID-19. She will certainly be missed, but her impact will continue for years to come.”

Pioneer of Community Health Improvement

While the pandemic was an important moment, Bennett’s contributions to our local community date back several decades. As deputy director of the Monroe County Department of Public Health from 1992 to 2006, she helped develop a system, called Health Action, to identify and mitigate local health issues. With the help of local health systems and community organizations, Health Action reduced teen smoking and infant mortality, and improved adult vaccination rates, among other health improvements.

She also established a partnership between the county and URMC that laid the groundwork for what is now known as the Center for Community Health & Prevention (CCHP). Thanks to Bennett’s passion and tireless advocacy, URMC established the Center in 2006 and named her the founding director—a role she still holds 17 years later.

“Through the establishment of the Center for Community Health & Prevention, Dr. Bennett led the effort to expand the mission of URMC to focus on the health of the people of the Rochester community,” said former Monroe County Health Commissioner Andrew Doniger, MD, MPH, who worked with Bennett during her time at the Department of Public Health. “URMC is now a national leader in the incorporation of population health into its daily provision of health care services in the community it serves.”

The Rochester Emerging Infections Program is one example of that. As Monroe County deputy health director, Bennett obtained a grant from the CDC in partnership with New York State to establish the program, which is part of a national network that aims to detect new infectious diseases and better understand how to prevent existing ones. Now part of the CCHP, the Rochester Emerging Infections Program has been continuously funded for over 25 years and provides surveillance for a variety of viral and bacterial infections including those that are health care-associated.

The CCHP’s clinical practice, which was established by Bennett and her colleagues in 2010, is another example. This chronic disease prevention initiative, which was initially funded by the National Institutes of Health, employs a multidisciplinary clinical team that utilizes individual and group-support strategies for behavior change that are evidence-based and grounded in self-determination theory.

Born of a partnership between Monroe County and URMC, the CCHP has also helped build strong ties between the Medical Center and the community. Through its Community Advisory Council, the Center invites community voices to guide URMC’s missions of education, research, community health, and patient care. Made up of key community partners, the council helps faculty and staff develop community-based research and service programs that truly meet the community’s needs.

“Dr. Bennett is a dynamic leader who fosters collaboration to find common ground to community health issues,” said Common Ground Health CEO Wade Norwood, who serves as co-chair of the URMC Community Advisory Council. “I have witnessed repeatedly [her] commitment to improving the health of area residents and putting public health initiatives into action. Through her work at the University of Rochester and in the community, [she] has exemplified outstanding professional and personal qualities and lifetime service in medicine, public health, and community welfare through her longtime focus on improving health equity in historically marginalized communities.”

In 2010, the CCHP also established the Satcher Community Health Improvement Awards. Named for David Satcher, MD, PhD, an internationally renowned public health and health equity expert who began his medical career at URMC, the awards recognize URMC faculty or staff who improve the health of our community through their research, clinical practice, teaching, or service programs.

“I want to express my appreciation for the way in which Dr. Bennett included me and the Morehouse School of Medicine in the community health program at Rochester and within the Rochester community,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Satcher, who is also the founding director and senior advisor at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “I enjoyed the opportunity to work with Dr. Bennett as she has contributed greatly to the development of many young people in the community, at the University of Rochester, and students in community medicine.”

Bennett has dedicated her career to mentoring the next generation of researchers and clinicians. Over the course of her career, she has mentored or supervised 54 doctorate and master’s degree candidates, postdoctoral fellows, early career researchers, medical residents, and summer interns.

Partner in Clinical and Translational Science

In 2006—the same year Bennett founded the CCHP—she was also involved in the launch of the URMC Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which aims to improve the health of communities and populations by supporting researchers and helping them collaborate and produce results faster. From the Institute’s inception, Bennett served as its director of community engagement.

When she was elevated to co-director of the entire Institute in 2015, she ensured that community engagement and population health improvement were front and center in the Institute’s work. During her eight-year tenure as co-director, Bennett and fellow co-director Martin Zand, MD, PhD, significantly expanded the size and scope of the CTSI.

“Nana was a founding leader in the University of Rochester CTSI and a guiding light for community-engaged research that truly partners with the community, addresses community concerns, and has an impact,” said Zand. “We will greatly miss her leadership and guidance in the CTSI.”

Decorated Scientist and Physician

Bennett’s phenomenal work over her long and distinguished career has not gone unnoticed. She has received numerous awards and honors at national, state, and county levels, including three Charles C. Shepard Science Award for Scientific Excellence from the CDC and an Innovation in Prevention Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Most recently, Bennett was recognized by the Rochester Academy of Medicine in October 2022 with the prestigious Dr. Albert David Kaiser Medal: Physician Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes physicians who have devoted a lifetime of service in areas of medicine, public health, or community welfare and have made local, regional, national, or international contributions in these areas.

Bennett graduated from New York University School of Medicine and completed her residency and chief residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. During her fellowship in general medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, she earned a master’s degree in Epidemiology. Before joining URMC, she served as assistant professor of Medicine at Columbia University.

A celebration will be held in Bennett’s honor in early December at the Center for Community Health & Prevention.