Victoria Lee, MD, is an assistant professor of rhinology (the study of sinus and nasal problems) and sinus and skull base surgery at University of Illinois Chicago. Born and raised in Wisconsin, she earned her medical degree from Northwestern University, completed her subspecialty training at Johns Hopkins, and completed her otolaryngology (the study of diseases of the ear and throat) residency at the University of Washington.  Her areas of expertise include nasal obstruction, allergy, sinusitis, nasal polyps, and sinonasal tumors. Lee’s research focuses on sinus and nasal clinical outcomes, particularly the effects of social and environmental factors on sinonasal disease.

In 2022, Lee received a C3EN Pilot Award for “Novel implementation of integrated electronic health record data collection of social determinants of health and home environmental exposures in a tertiary rhinology clinic.” This project focuses on collecting information about the physical environments of patients’ homes, which may strongly affect sinonasal conditions such as seasonal allergies and chronic sinusitis. Using an existing survey typically used by researchers, Lee and collaborators seek to refine the survey for clinical use and test implementation and efficacy of the survey in a setting that primarily serves patients from minority and underserved groups.

“My main research is on the impact of health disparities on sinonasal disease,” she says. “Some of the tools we use to collect physical determinants of health data aren’t as comprehensive as we need them to be. At UIC, we have a high medically underserved patient population. How do health disparities affect how well patients do with the diseases we study? There are so many factors–socioeconomic status, insurance, employment. I decided to focus on home environment, which is modifiable.”

Using focus groups and qualitative interview techniques, Lee hopes to pare down an existing comprehensive home environmental survey, which contains questions about flooring, ventilation, heating systems, and other environmental conditions, for use in a clinic setting. “We want to know what patients think is most relevant for them and what affects their symptoms the most,” she says. “Are any questions confusing? What makes sense in terms of how to phrase them?”

Avoiding triggers is key to treating sinonasal disease, says Lee. “What are a patient’s specific triggers? If we identify that a trigger is, for example, dust, there are HEPA filters that may help. Asking them to open windows during the summer may help, as may vacuuming.” For patients who may not be able to afford a consistent supply of medications, timing medications such as nasal sprays, with seasonal triggers might also improve their outcomes.

“Some of the challenges our patients have are understudied because we have a lack of representation of minorities in clinical trials research,” notes Lee, who is also currently conducting clinical trials with immunomodulatory drugs for chronic sinusitis.

“Allergies are chronic diseases,” says Lee. “But no one is going to die from sinus disease. It’s just annoying: they can’t smell, they can’t taste, they can’t breathe. Treatment is really about working with patients to improve their quality of life.”