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Mina Raj

A Few Minutes With Mina Raj

University of Illinois media relations specialist Vince Lara speaks with Kinesiology and Community Health assistant professor Mina Raj about her research agenda.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, a podcast that showcases Illinois' college of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara. And today I'm speaking with PCH Assistant Professor Mina Raj about why she chose Illinois, teaching during a pandemic, and her research with caregivers of older adults. So Mina, thanks so much for speaking with me today. I always try to find out about faculty and how they got their start, especially new faculty like yourself. So did you always want to teach?

MINA RAJ: Thank you so much for doing this with me today, this podcast. So I have always enjoyed teaching. And I did look forward to it, especially since my experiences of teaching as a graduate student. As a graduate student, I think it's been really rewarding to observe students evolve in their critical thinking about a topic over the course, form evidence-based opinions about different topics, and especially policies in the health care classes that I teach, and discover new aspects of our health care system that they are passionate about but they didn't necessarily understand, though they can resonate from their personal experiences as being patients.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, interesting. I wonder, typically, when a person goes into research, there's something that sparked their agenda, what they wanted to look into. And one of your primary research agendas is incorporating caregivers into health care. And I'm curious what made you look into that? What was the impetus for doing that kind of research?

MINA RAJ: Sure. So during my PhD, my dissertation research was focused on understanding how older adults and their family caregivers make decisions about geriatric care. So geriatrics is the medical field that specializes in the care for older adults, especially those with complex clinical conditions. And then some other projects where I was working to understand patients with cancer, it was kind of a similar situation of recognizing that family caregivers are really influential in health care and in medical decision making.

But they aren't really talked about that much in policy in that way. So the way we think mostly about family caregivers are their assistance with things like eating and dressing and transportation and meal preparation. But they're really kind of neglected from health care conversations. And I think my research seeks to really help caregivers because these are the people that are supporting patients who are going through intense challenging periods of their lives. And so seeing this major gap in our policies and in research led me to want to focus on supporting caregivers so that they can support their care recipients.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hmm. I want to take a step back. I meant to ask you first, what made you choose Illinois?

MINA RAJ: Yeah. So that's a great question. There was a lot that I enjoyed. When I visited Illinois, I found the first thing that struck me was how supportive and what an emphasis there is on the campus on collaboration within the department, as well as across the departments.

So I've already sort of started forming teams with people in fields that I previously knew very little about, and I'm learning so much. And it's really nice to think outside the box and get to be creative. And that's my other point is that it seems like the kind of place where I can be very creative, a place where your ideas can really translate into different types of technology or different types of policies. And seeing ideas come to fruition like that was something that really sparked my interest in Illinois.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hmm. One of the things that you also look at, switching back to your research, is you look at technology to support caregivers. And I'm wondering what sort of technology do you use?

MINA RAJ: Yeah. So I examine a variety of different technologies. So for instance, within health technology, there's the electronic health record, which if you go to the doctor's office, you might sign onto your patient portal before you go to the office in order to fill out a questionnaire. Then when you go to your doctor's office, your doctor might be on the computer filling out information about you into the electronic health record or the computer system. And so this is one type of technology that I look at in terms of policies or design to integrate caregivers so that they can access their care recipient's patient portal or health record.

Another type of technology to look at is telemedicine. And in the past several months, we've seen a huge shift to telemedicine visits for health care. So this is where a patient might visit their doctor through a phone or through video conferencing. And so, again, how do we allow caregivers to be part of that visit? We know that caregivers often assist their relatives to the doctor's office, may take notes, may provide the doctor with more information about the patient's concerns, and how do we make the same situation happen when we're doing care over telemedicine.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hmm. You reference telemedicine. And obviously, telemedicine has become an important part of how we treat people and that's because of the pandemic. And I'm wondering, how has the pandemic changed how you teach and also how you conduct research?

MINA RAJ: Sure. So in terms of my research, I would say that it has led me to shift a little bit more to survey research. I'm a mixed-methods researcher. So I do primary data collections through surveys, interviews, focus groups, as well as secondary data. And so I've really been focusing on developing online surveys and analyzing secondary data.

I have missed being able to interview key participants and conduct focus groups. I've done a little bit of that through virtual modes. But it's a little bit different. You don't really get to form the same type of relationship with your participants, which is key to building trust in the context of research, especially.

And so I think that's a similar situation in terms of teaching, where I've definitely seen a lot of positive benefits of online teaching. I think, for instance, I've noticed that students may even be more comfortable with speaking up in class. I think there are a lot of really great polls and breakout rooms and other opportunities for creating an interesting classroom environment. But again, one of the things I miss is that face to face, walking into the classroom, and seeing students and getting to know them in a different way and feeling the enthusiasm in a room when students understand a concept that relates to something in their lives that they've experienced.

VINCE LARA: Mm-hmm. I'm interested in your most recent publication. In it, you looked at characteristics that helped shape medical trainees and their specialties in treating geriatrics. And you spoke about geriatrics earlier. What kind of characteristics do you mean when you talk about the characteristics that help shape their specialties?

MINA RAJ: Sure. So I drew upon a sociological framework for that particular study that says that the way that we decide what career or specialty in medicine we go into-- this can actually apply to any career; it's actually called a model of careership-- is a combination of personal experiences, our social network and social circle and those experiences, and then institutional characteristics. So this can be the school that we are educated in, the medical institution that we go to and get our training in. And so we have a really significant workforce shortage in geriatrics.

We need over 20,000 geriatricians in order to meet demand for our current aging population. And so geriatrics happens to be a pretty new field that was really developed in the 1980s. And we've had problems with recruiting medical trainees to go into geriatrics.

Now, one of the earlier areas of discussion was that medical trainees may have poor attitudes towards aging and may not really understand the aging process and may think of it negatively. And so a lot of institutions have implemented training and skills and exposure to older adults in order to mitigate the effect of that characteristic. And so I felt like that didn't solve the whole problem.

There's still something missing in our understanding of what's going on. So I decided in that study to focus on those three characteristics, so personal, social, and institutional. And what I found was that institutional characteristics were particularly influential in this qualitative study of trainee interest in geriatrics.

So this can include things like do you have many geriatricians in leadership positions who are role models to medical trainees and teach medical trainees about what it means to be a geriatrician? How close by are geriatrics clinics to where residents are training? So that's another way that different institutions can influence the exposure of their trainees have to geriatrics and also make them feel like it's a different type of medicine. It's a complex type of medicine. And it requires different skills. But it's still medicine.

And so I think one of the main conclusions of the paper is that we need to expand our understanding of complexity in medicine. It can be knowing a lot about an organ system or about a part of the body. But it can also mean knowing about the lifespan and knowing about the health care system and an older adult's social and economic circumstances.

VINCE LARA: I know researchers are always looking at what's next, right? You have to always think about publishing. So I wonder, what's next for you? Like, what do you hope to tackle next? And I know you're building collaborations here at UIUC. And so what do you have on the horizon?

MINA RAJ: Sure. I so my main area is going to continue to be looking at different ways of designing technologies and policies to integrate family caregivers into health care teams. And so this involves both what do these technologies look like and then in addition, what do our policies need to look like in order to make sure that this integration is both effective and also safe? So for instance, if caregivers can see their older relative's medical record, we want to make sure that we have policies in place to protect patient privacy and caregiver privacy and make sure that caregivers aren't discriminated against in a workplace because maybe they have certain health risks. And so that is really what I see as the primary area of my research agenda.

Another project that I'm really excited about and I'm working on right now is actually a text-based survey of youth across the United States. So these are adolescents aged 14 to 24. And so this text-based text message-based survey, prompts qualitative responses. And the questions that I have asked are to get a sense of how young adults and youth in the US think about family caregiving and their potential for being a family caregiver in the future, including what policies or educational practices or health care practices they perceive meeting in order to carry out potential caregiving responsibilities while promoting their well-being and their educational and professional success.

VINCE LARA: My Thanks to Mina Raj. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With in iTunes, Spotify, IHeartRadio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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