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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Research

Student Q&A: Salva Balbale, Health Sciences Integrated PhD Program

Salva Balbale

Salva Balbale, a third-year student in the Health Sciences Integrated PhD Program (HSIP), studies ways to enhance the quality and delivery of care for patients with chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

Balbale earned her undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Through her graduate studies and work in the field, she became enthusiastic about finding ways to improve care delivery and outcomes in GI disorders, a clinical area where health services research remains a relatively new concept. Encouraged by the HSIP faculty at Northwestern, Balbale decided to pursue her PhD.  

Where is your hometown?

I daresay my hometown is Chicago. I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but spent my childhood split between Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and the Chicago suburbs. I also lived in Champaign-Urbana for a while, and have been back in Chicago since 2011.

What are your research interests?

My main research interests include evaluating and enhancing the quality and delivery of health care for patients with chronic GI disorders. These disorders – including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and pancreatitis – are increasingly prevalent and complex, resulting in substantial morbidity, psychosocial challenges and health care costs. Despite the growing burden of these disorders, persistent gaps exist in the delivery of GI care and subsequent patient outcomes. My aim is to better understand these gaps and develop innovative, patient-centered strategies to improve care for individuals with these disorders.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My doctoral research involves optimizing the use and delivery of opioid analgesics in chronic GI care. Pain is a common symptom across many GI disorders and can significantly decrease quality of life. Opioids are often used for pain management in this area; however, high rates of opioid misuse and abuse have been documented among individuals with chronic GI disorders. These patterns are problematic, particularly given the broader opioid epidemic in the United States. My work is centered on characterizing current trends in GI care regarding opioid use and identifying strategies to minimize inappropriate opioid use in this care setting.

I am also working with Drs. Itishree Trivedi and Laurie Keefer within the Division of Gastroenterology to improve care for young adults with IBD who transition to adult GI care. Young adults represent a significant proportion of IBD patients, yet they experience a range of poor clinical outcomes compared to older IBD patients, including missed clinic visits and increased emergency care use and health care costs. Our aim is to describe the unique needs of this subset of patients and develop a tailored quality improvement framework to more seamlessly integrate young adults into adult GI care.

What attracted you to the PhD program?

I was enthusiastic about finding ways to improve care delivery and outcomes in a clinical area where health services research remains a relatively new concept. The HSIP faculty members appreciated my ideas and continue to work with me to ensure that my doctoral studies align with my interests while enhancing my research toolkit. The program gives me the opportunity to build my knowledge and skills within health services and outcomes research and apply it to an area that I am especially passionate about. The program also allowed me to connect with leading faculty across the Northwestern community, with unique expertise, who’ve mentored me. These attributes made the program particularly attractive to me.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

My best experience at Feinberg has been the opportunity to be part of an institution that supports my research ideas and enables me to conduct research that may one day drive meaningful, positive change in the lives of individuals with chronic diseases. I am surrounded by an incredibly inspiring group of people – from peers and students to faculty and staff – who challenge me every day to be the best scientist I can be.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

The faculty members at Feinberg are supportive, collaborative and approachable. I have been fortunate to work with an excellent group of mentors who are not only dedicated to my success in the PhD program and beyond, but have become more like a family to me. Although increasingly diverse in their individual research expertise, I have found the faculty to share an enthusiasm for both optimizing students’ development and conducting research that truly makes an impact.

What do you do in your free time?

I have a wonderful husband with whom I spend much of my free time. We can usually be found eating and checking out new restaurants around Chicago, traveling, or hanging out with our family and friends. Aside from that, I enjoy reading.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I would like to continue advancing my research skills to enhance health care access, delivery, and quality for individuals with chronic GI and other complex disorders. Chronic diseases are now a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, and there are still many gaps in how we care for those facing these diseases. Ultimately, my plan is to use my research to actively engage the voices of patients and providers to design and implement innovative strategies that make health care more efficient, coordinated and patient-centered.

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