UCLA Spotlight


Lillian Gelberg, Family Medicine

  • By Alan Eyerly, Elizabeth Lonky
  • Published Jul 1, 2001 8:00 AM

When Lillian Gelberg conducted her medical residency in the South Bronx, she learned firsthand how difficult it is to treat the poverty-stricken. Prescribing medication for high blood pressure would aid someone in the short term, but social problems, mental health issues and a constellation of other challenges often sabotaged the medical intervention.

"I kept feeling like I was climbing up a greased pole," says Gelberg, an associate professor of family medicine. "I decided I needed to do something bigger — try to change the social health of my patients and try to improve the health-care system."

Today, Gelberg is recognized as one of the nation's leading researchers on homeless populations. Her work examines both the physical and mental health needs of Los Angeles County's impoverished residents by using sophisticated statistical techniques along with innovative interviewing strategies to enlist homeless people in the surveys. Studies conducted by Gelberg and her students have helped health planners design more effective medical and social-action programs for bringing homeless people into the mainstream.

For her efforts, the California Academy of Family Physicians Foundation presented Gelberg with the inaugural Family Practice Excellence in Research Award. She is also the first person to hold the Kneller Endowed Chair at UCLA and just became a full professor at the School of Medicine.

According to Gelberg, the magnitude of America's homeless problem is growing worse. "Anecdotal reports say the demand is increasing at shelters and at soup lines," she says.

The solution? For starters, Gelberg believes more funding is needed for housing subsidies, prevention of poverty and homelessness, drug addiction programs, violence prevention efforts and mental health treatment, as well as pregnancy prevention efforts.

The desire to help others was instilled in Gelberg at an early age. She is the daughter of European immigrants who struggled to survive the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Her mother had been imprisoned in two concentration camps and her father in a labor camp. Gelberg was 11 when her uncle died of cancer, prompting the young girl to consider medicine as a career.

The San Fernando Valley native earned her medical degree from Harvard University and her master's in public health and bachelor's in psychobiology from UCLA. She completed her fellowship at UCLA through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, in which she remains active as a mentor and advisory committee member. She finds that mentoring students and enlisting them in her field research bring tremendous satisfaction.

"I've always included students in my data collections," Gelberg says. "That's one of the greatest joys I have in my work."