Laura J. Benjamins, MD, MPH, AAHIVS
After earning her MD with Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Laura Benjamins moved to Houston, Texas for her residency at Baylor College of Medicine in 1998. She then completed two fellowships with the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, one in Adolescent Medicine and one in Primary Care, while simultaneously earning her MPH from the University of Texas School of Public Health. In various hospital settings, she has been the attending physician for inpatient pediatric services and has covered newborn nurseries. In the outpatient setting, she has had other specialty clinics including one for patients with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and patients with heavy menstrual bleeding. Today she is a professor of Adolescent Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth where, for the past 16 years, she has been working with the Pediatric Infectious Disease team to provide care to adolescents and young adults with HIV.
“We see about six to eight patients in a half day,” says Benjamins, “About 80% of the patient I see are adolescents or young adults, the other 20% are infants or children. Our patients are predominately Black or Latinx, mostly Medicaid or Ryan White funded. I can see patients until the age of 26, however we try to transition patients to adult care prior to age 21. When I initially started working with the Pediatric Infectious Disease group, the majority of adolescents and young adults I saw acquired HIV perinatally. Now, the majority have acquired HIV primarily from sexual activity. I also provide care for infants born to mothers living with HIV. Houston has some of the highest rates – still – of mother to child transmission of HIV, so I continue to have some patients that acquired HIV at birth.”
Benjamins works primarily with two Pediatric Infectious Disease doctors at an outpatient clinic located in the Houston medical center. Together with a nurse and two medical assistants, a research and clinical care coordinator as well as a Ryan White case manager, they have clinic one or two half days a week. “As an adolescent provider in our practice I can continue to see patients into their twenties. Being able to provide care through adolescence and into young adulthood helps to ease the transition from pediatric to adult care. Ideally this helps prevent patients from falling out of care during this critical time. Our practice also acts as the primary care provider for the majority of our patients, so that we are not just a specialty clinic, but instead we are truly a medical home. Being able to provide comprehensive sexual health care, including long acting reversible contraceptives and the diagnoses and treatment of sexually transmitted infections means we do not have to refer patients to yet another clinic for these services.”
Concurrent with her work with UTHealth, Benjamins is the medical director for Harris County Juvenile Probation and provides care at three facilities for Juvenile Justice Involved youth. “I have unfortunately diagnosed several adolescent patients with HIV while they have been detained at one of our juvenile justice facilities. However, this has given me the opportunity to link them into care once they have been released,” says Benjamins.
The idea of ensuring care during periods of transition is thematic in Benjamins’ professional experience. She shares an interest in developing more structured transition programs for adolescents with HIV as they move into adult care. “This is such a critical time for them, and ensuring that their medical and emotional needs are being met is crucial. I would also like to strengthen programs for mothers living with HIV and ideally integrate their care into our clinic while we are providing care for their infants and children.”
With a career robust with clinical, scholarly and teaching activities, Benjamins reflects on what motivated her to pursue HIV care. “I fell in love with the science of HIV, but more importantly my practice allows me to provide both primary and specialized comprehensive care to a particularly vulnerable and complex set of patients. I am passionate about providing compassionate, evidence-based medicine and HIV care allowed the perfect opportunity to do this. Lastly, as the field is ever evolving and changing it allows me to stay intellectually challenged.”
Looking to the future, Benjamins hopes that if there is not a cure that there are at least treatment modalities that make it easier for patients to adhere to regimens. Says Benjamins, “The advances that have been made the past 10 years have been incredible. It is hard to envision the next 10 as advances have been exponential and not linear.” She also calls for changes to our healthcare system so that every single patient living with HIV has access to services that better address their often complex needs. She calls for better integration of behavioral health and social services into clinics in order to fully care for patients.
Beyond her work, Laura is a mother of two and a wife. Her oldest daughter is 18 and will be attending her alma mater Vassar College. Her youngest daughter is 5 and will be starting kindergarten. Her husband is a history professor at a local community college and is passionate about race equity. Benjamins’ hobbies include running and biking. She’s run five marathons with the New York Marathon being her favorite. Asked why she joined AAHIVM as an Academy Member, Benjamins says, “I joined in order to have access to resources that allow me to stay current and informed about HIV care. Also, to be able to network with other HIV care providers who feel equally passionate about what they do. I was told that I am the first pediatrician to be on the Academy’s Texas Steering Committee, so hopefully I bring a different perspective to other members.”
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