Dennis Watson

Dennis Watson

Primary Affiliation: Equity, Justice, & Human Flourishing Working Group

Center for Dissemination and Implementation Science, College of Medicine | University of Illinois Chicago

Skill Highlights

Substance Use Disorder Evaluation

Dissemination & Implementation Research

Program Evaluation

Use of Qualitative & Mixed Methods

Crafting Policies from People


Awarded funding of $100,000 for a project studying Racial Equity and Justice in the State Courts During the Post-Pandemic Transition. The project will leverage and build on the COVID-19 and the Operations of Courts Project and what has been learned so far on the operations of courts and access to justice during the pandemic.
Professor Wilson received a $232,032 Templeton Religion Trust grant to support the Tolerance Means Dialogues initiatives.
Since January 1, 2019, Professor Wilson and a team of students have been supporting legislative efforts across the U.S. to provide patient protections around intimate teaching exams, which have resulted in 13 laws in 32 months, drawing on her Opinion-Editorial in the Chicago Tribune, #Just Ask: Stop Treating Unconscious Female Patients like Cadavers.
Assisted Utah Governor Gary Herbert and General Counsel Ron Gordon in crafting legislation banning gay conversion therapy through revisions to R156 concerning Commerce, Occupational and Professional Licensing, drawing from her article Being Transgender in the Era of Trump: Compassion Should Pick Up Where Science Leaves Off.
Assisted the Utah Legislature to craft its landmark antidiscrimination laws protecting both the LGBT and faith communities in a package of protections, drawn from Bargaining for Civil Rights: Lessons from Mrs. Murphy for Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Rights, described in more detail in Common Ground Lawmaking Lessons for Peaceful Coexistence from Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Utah Compromise.
Assisted Senator Michael McLachlan, Connecticut State Senate, in codifying same-sex marriage with legislative protections for all, drawing from her work on Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts with Professor Douglas Laycock and Anthony Picarello. This effort resulted in religious liberty protections in 9 states and the District of Columbia. See, e.g., Connecticut (S.B. 899, 2009); District of Columbia (D.C. Law 18-110, 2009); New Hampshire (H.B. 73, 2010); New York (A. 8354, 2011); Washington (S.B. 6239, 2012); Maryland (H.B. 438, 2012); Minnesota (H.F. 1054, 2013); Rhode Island (S. 0038A, 2013); Illinois (S.B. 0010, 2013); and Hawaii (S.B. 1, 2013).
Assisted Rep. David Orentlicher, Indiana House of Representatives, in crafting child protection legislation (Indiana S.B. 311), drawing on her work on Sexually Predatory Parents and the Children in Their Care: Remove the Threat, Not the Child, in Handbook of Children, Culture and Violence 39 (Nancy Dowd, Dorothy G. Singer & Robin Fretwell Wilson, eds., 2006).
Assisted Representative James Smith, South Carolina House of Representatives, in crafting the Lewis Blackman Hospital Patient Safety Protection Act (South Carolina H.B. 3832). Professor Wilson partnered with Helen Haskell, whose fifteen-year-old son, Lewis Blackman, had died, to fashion a package of patient protections designed to avert tragic deaths, such as requiring health professionals to wear name tags identifying their role on the healthcare team and posting notices about how to reach an attending physician.
Partnered with Delegate Robert Bell, Virginia House of Delegates, to provide patient protections around intimate teaching exams, drawing on her article Autonomy Suspended: Using Female Patients to Teach Intimate Exams Without Their Knowledge or Consent and her testimony before the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice at the Joint Hearings on Health Care and Competition Law and Policy on June 10, 2003. From 2012 until 2019, the span of seven years, six states enacted similar laws requiring informed consent for intimate teaching exams.
Assisted Representative David Orentlicher, Indiana House of Representatives, in crafting child protection legislation (Indiana S.B. 194), drawing on Professor Wilson’s article The Cradle of Abuse: Evaluating the Danger Posed by a Sexually Predatory Parent to the Victim’s Siblings.



Dennis Watson is a Senior Research Scientist at Chestnut Health System’s Lighthouse Institute Chicago office and affiliated faculty in the Center for Dissemination and Implementation Science at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. His research primarily focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of behavioral health interventions. Various federal, state, and local funders including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, CDC, Arnold Ventures, and the Fairbanks Foundation have supported his research. A significant body of his work has focused on harm reduction, recovery support services, and treatment linkage interventions for people who use illicit substances or who have a substance use disorder. His prior research focused on the Housing First model of permanent supportive housing has helped guide housing services training and policy in the United States and abroad. His most recent work investigates the effectiveness of peer support and treatment linkage services delivered through both in-person and virtual modalities in emergency medicine and community-based settings. He also has considerable experience evaluating federally-funded behavioral health programs and interventions.

2020 – Present: Senior Research Scientist, Lighthouse Institute, Chestnut Health System

2020 – Present: Associate Professor (non-salaried), Center for Dissemination and Implementation Science, Department of Medicine, College of Medicine, the University of Illinois Chicago


2019- 2020: Associate Director for Community Engagement, Center for Dissemination and Implementation Science, Department of Medicine, College of Medicine, the University of Illinois at Chicago

2017 – 2018: Associate Professor with tenure, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

2012 – 2016: Interim Director, Center for Health Policy, Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

2011 – 2017: Assistant Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis 

2011 – Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago

2017 – M.S., Indiana University

2005 – M.A., Loyola University Chicago

2002 – B.S., Bradley University


Policies from People, for People

One important generator of policy is the lived experiences of actual people, especially during times of immense need. Gathering these insights is one thrust of Professor Wilson’s work, an approach that can loosely be described as “Policies from People, for People.” IGPA has developed innovations to help lift the voices of actual people, including the Citizen Scientist Journaling Project and the surveys of panels of experts, the Pandemic Stress Indicator Project, led by Professor Brian Gaines. These initiatives especially resonate with elected officials because they mirror an important generator of policy—constituent feedback—with a rigorous, systematic process that reaches across the entire state or region.

Dialogues on Tolerance

Many culture war clashes need not be a war at all: antiquated laws trap us into deciding to preference one interest over another when, in fact, they can be melded. Millennials and Generation Z are actively bridging culture war divides, which is no surprise since they have grown up with unprecedented diversity and openness to one another. If we are to heal a fractured society, we should amplify their voices and learn from them. The Tolerance Means Dialogues (TMD), a project co-founded with Yale University Professor William N. Eskridge, Jr., generates dialogue around deeply contested questions in civil society by hosting Dialogues at colleges and universities across the nation, offering scholarships to essay winners who provide the most compelling advice on what tolerance means to them and how to live together in a diverse society. This important work is made possible by a gift from Templeton Religion Trust.

$500,000 MacArthur Grant

Professors Wilson, Mendenhall, and others are now working to expand the Citizen Scientists approach through a new project: Centering Youth’s Health and Wellness: Designing a Third Reconstruction and Chicago Renaissance. This project seeks to create a culture of innovation that centers on the health and wellness of Black and Latinx high school students and young adults (up to age 21) living in Chicago. These students and young adults will also act as Community Health Workers and Citizen Scientists to document health disparities and offer solutions, with a generous grant of $500,000 from the MacArthur Foundation.

16 Citizen Scientists

Together with Professor Ruby Mendenhall at UIUC, Professor Wilson has convened the Citizen Scientists Journaling on COVID-19 Project in an effort to better understand how Illinois residents have managed socially, emotionally, and economically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixteen Illinois residents journaled here once a week for six months. The project drew from those most affected by the pandemic—older persons; persons presently incarcerated; persons in rural communities; members of the homeless community; and members of the Black, Latinx, and LGBT communities, and more. These individuals’ journals teach lessons about community, faith, resilience, halting progress, overcoming—and even the efficacy of public policies being put in place in real-time by a government struggling to mitigate impacts on people.

Access to Justice

In a collaboration between the National Center for State Courts and IGPA, Professors Wilson, Jason Mazzone, and Brian Gaines have launched a large-scale examination of how pandemic-related changes to court operations impacted cases and access to the legal system: the COVID-19 and the Operation of Courts Project. A national survey – constructed after two dozen focus groups in Illinois, South Carolina, and Ohio with judges, lawyers, litigants, jurors, and court staff – is presently in the field. The goal is to determine what has worked and what hasn’t. A key preliminary finding is that when court proceedings move online, digital divides exacerbate problems of access to justice. Learning not only from presiding judges, court personnel, and attorneys, but also from litigants themselves, the project is documenting innovative approaches like kiosks pioneered by some jurisdictions to overcome the digital divide.

Medicalization of Poverty

Professor Wilson co-convened with University of Virginia Professor Lois Shepherd the Medicalization of Poverty Symposium, published in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics. The Symposium brings together experts in medicine, law, policy, and ethics to explore the connection between poverty, disease burden, and healthcare expenditures. A number of diseases are strongly linked to poverty, and poverty is a strong predictor of health status. A second aspect of poverty is less well-explored: we spend inordinate amounts of money and other resources to address healthcare needs brought on by poverty instead of providing for the tangible needs of the poor before illness results — a phenomenon we call the Medicalization of Poverty. We treat the symptom, not the problem. Rather than adequately address poor housing conditions and prenatal care, we offer inhalers and NICUs. This approach comes at both a financial and a human cost. The Symposium asks, “How Can We Do Better?” In 2021, the Medicalization of Poverty was published as a book in China with Professor Lois Shepherd and Professor Lei (David) Shi, associate professor at Southwest University of Political Science and Law.

Fairness for All

Professor Wilson founded the Fairness for All Initiative to provide tangible support and advice to thought-leaders, stakeholders, policymakers, and state and local legislators who seek balanced approaches that respect both LGBT rights and religious freedom. Made possible by the generous support of the Templeton Religion Trust, Professor Wilson’s work draws extensively on her experience assisting the Utah Legislature when it enacted its landmark 2015 nondiscrimination laws. The Fairness for All bill, H.R.5331, introduced in December 2019, draws on Professor Wilson’s policy proposals relating to foster care and adoption.

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2018: Recovery Day Celebration Award for Research resulting in “Sustained Recovery” through better Treatment, Presented by Public Advocates on Community re-Entry
2016: Induction, Delta Omega Honorary Society in Public Health, Beta Zeta Chapter
2012-2016: NIH Loan Repayment Program. Four rounds of repayment approved by the National Institute on Drug Abuse