June 24, 2024

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UM Today | Research and International

3 min read

May 24, 2024 — 

Renée El-Gabalawy, an associate professor in the Max Rady College of Medicine, employs innovative research methods to explore the interconnections between mental and physical health.

El-Gabalawy is the 2023 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Emerging Researcher Award in the Health Sciences category, in recognition of her research to improve mental health care for medically vulnerable populations. UM Today caught up with El-Gabalawy to learn more about her and the research she is undertaking.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your research.

I’m a clinician scientist with cross appointments in the departments of Clinical Health Psychology and Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, which is a really unique partnership yielding fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations. I also hold adjunct appointments in Psychology, Psychiatry and Cancer Care Manitoba. As a registered clinical health psychologist, my specialization is in medical trauma.

As the director of the Health Anxiety and Trauma Lab (HATLab), my research broadly focuses on the interrelationships between mental and physical health, particularly how mental health affects medical procedures like surgery. More recently, I’ve been exploring innovative ways to increase accessibility to mental health treatments for medically vulnerable patients, including the development of virtual reality interventions.

Outside of work, I am a proud mom to two young, wonderful girls who are the centre of my world.

Why is this research important?

The biopsychosocial model of health is well recognized in healthcare, yet research and clinical practices often still operate in silos focusing on biological and psychological factors independently. My research illustrates the vital relationship between mental and physical health and supports holistic patient care.

Recently, my focus has shifted towards developing innovative solutions that enable a greater number of medically vulnerable individuals to access evidence-based mental health supports. This approach is critical because we know improvements in mental health care yield significant improvements in physical health and overall functioning.

What does the Rh award mean to you?

Receiving the Rh award is an immense honour, especially considering the large number of incredible early career researchers at the university. Like many others, my path to academia was not linear, and I faced some bumps along the way.

My dad wrote a quote from Don McLean in my PhD graduation card: “I did a whole lot better than they thought I would.” This award is not only validating but also a reflection of that sentiment. It makes me incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve received to support my development.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Lately, I’ve been increasingly thinking about implementation science—how to disseminate our work and ensure that the effective interventions we develop reach a larger number of people within the healthcare system. I aim to impact how patients navigate the healthcare system and develop person-centered mental health pathways for medically vulnerable patients.

Specifically, I’m interested in integrating mental health supports into the surgery experience more consistently, as improvements in mental health prior to surgery are associated with better patient health outcomes and can also ultimately have benefits for the healthcare system as a whole.

What about you might people find surprising?

I am an avid fisherwoman and a Master Angler in three species of fish: pickerel, rainbow trout and catfish. Fishing is a blend of skill, perseverance and luck, which are qualities that also draw me to research.

Any advice for early career researchers and students?

Follow your passion and interests. In the past, I conducted research in areas that were less exciting to me, despite perhaps more opportunities. However, I found that excitement and interest in your work lead to productivity and fulfillment in your career.

Also, find inspiration in your everyday life. I draw a lot of inspiration from the patients I work with, who have contributed greatly to my research questions.

Lastly, seek supervisors and mentors who will not only cheer you on but also push you to achieve your best. This balance is important.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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