Q&A with Associate Professor Helen Benham

5 minute read

The clinician and researcher talks about her allied health beginnings, inspiring women and the sports presenter career that never was.

Associate Professor Helen Benham is a senior staff specialist at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Director of Clinical Translation at the Translational Research Institute (TRI) and has governance roles with Arthritis Queensland and other boards.

She took time out of her busy schedule to chat with Rheumatology Republic about her beginnings in allied health, her clinical and research career, and the sports presenter career that never was.

Can you tell us about your studies and career thus far?

After doing an undergraduate degree in podiatry at QUT in Brisbane, I worked for a year as a podiatrist at Hornsby Hospital in Sydney. I then studied medicine at the University of Sydney.

I did my junior doctor and basic physician training in Brisbane, and had my first child as a physician trainee. I was accepted into the rheumatology program as an advanced trainee, which is when I had my second child.

I started a PhD in 2010 with Professor Ranjeny Thomas and Professor Matt Brown as supervisors, and for the final 6 months of my advanced training I went to Cambridge UK (Addenbrookes) for a year in the lab with Professor Hill Gaston.

My PhD topic was IL-23 signalling in spondyloarthritis. I returned to UQ Diamantina Institute to continue my PhD and worked part time as a consultant at the Princes Alexandra Hospital (PAH) – and had my third child!

Associate Professor Helen Benham

After completing my PhD, I worked for the University of QLD School of Medicine as the deputy and acting head of the Southside/PAH clinic school while doing research and private practice as well.

I was fortunate to get an NHMRC TRIP fellowship for 2016-17 and ceased private practice at that time. I have been involved in research across the spectrum from the laboratory through to end translational activity including clinical trials.

What inspired you to go into rheumatology?

I really could have been happy in many of the physician subspecialities, but I was inspired at the time I finished basic training by the explosion of immune-based therapies for rheumatological diseases.

In addition, I always felt (and still do) that rheumatology is a very ‘physicianally’ speciality!

Has your earlier training and practice in podiatry influenced your rheumatology practice?

Coming from an allied health background I have always believed in a multidisciplinary approach to patient care. The other bonus is an understanding of biomechanics and excellent foot and ankle anatomy knowledge!  

You have several roles at the moment – how do the roles complement each other?

Yes, I have had a diverse career so far and I feel very fortunate.

I am currently a senior staff specialist at PAH and have a new role as the Director of Clinical Translation at the TRI (Translational Research Institute). In addition, I hold a number of governance roles including as a director on the board then Chair of Arthritis QLD; director on the Metro South Hospital and Health Board; and I was a director on the PA Research Foundation Board 2020-21.

I really enjoy the differing aspects of my roles and I believe the insights we gain across different opportunities helps us approach challenges in other settings.

You were involved in research on RA liposome vaccines at the TRI. Can you tell us anything about what’s happening with RA vaccines?

I was incredibly fortunate to be involved in Professor Ranjeny Thomas’s work and the paper that was published in Science Translation Medicine in 2015.

Ranjeny’s lab continues to be focused on the study of autoimmune diseases and restoration of tolerance utilising antigen-specific (personalised) immunotherapy. This work is both cutting edge and inspiring and offers hope for those living with RA and other autoimmune diseases.

You were also investigating patient-centred treat-to-target (T2T) therapy in RA. What did you discover and what were the main clinical practice implications?

This study assessed clinician and patient barriers to the implementation of an RA-T2T strategy and developed a knowledge translation (KT) tool for use in “real-life” clinical settings.

We found many patients had no prior knowledge of RA-T2T but agreed with the recommendations and were willing to try it – many felt their treatment could be improved and wanted more involvement in treatment decisions.

Rheumatologists agreed with RA-T2T recommendations, but barriers to implementation included time, appointment availability and perceived patient reluctance to escalate medications.

The findings are discussed in the paper, published last year, but in short, understanding clinician and patient barriers and using the patient-driven KT-tool can improve RA-T2T uptake in clinical practice.

Nicola Dalbeth and Tuhina Neogi recently called out the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases’ ‘Heroes and Pillars of Rheumatology’ for neglecting to profile women (with one exception). Can you tell us which inspiring women in rheumatology you’d nominate as heroes/pillars?

There are many inspiring women in rheumatology and in fact too many to mention! In Australia (but also internationally) we have the most amazing female rheumatologists across the clinical, research and leadership spectrums.

At various times in my career, I have been inspired, encouraged, held up, mentored and supported by many women in rheumatology and I am grateful to all of them.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Spending time with my husband, kids, family and friends and doing yoga!

Can you tell us a fun fact about yourself?

I love sport and my dream job was always to be a Fox sports news presenter.

And finally, what advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Be brave.

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×