What led you to take this opportunity with the Blue Cross NC Foundation?
I am excited about the opportunities we have in front of us at the Foundation to be able to participate in improving the health of North Carolinians. Many national health policy experts are looking to North Carolina for good reason. The Foundation has helped to set the stage for transformation of the systems that impact health in the state. The changes Patrick Conway is leading with Blue Cross NC and the policy changes with Medicaid Transformation have created momentum for significant improvements in health through addressing social needs and the drivers of health.
You join the organization as it is refining its strategy - a strategy that is more focused on non-medical drivers (or social determinants) of health, views equity as a central component, and elevates the role of communities in addressing health. What excites you the most about what the Foundation is doing?
There is a lot to be excited about. The team has done a great job of evolving the organization's strategy and putting us in the position we are today. One area that I am particularly interested in is
, which we recently expanded. The initial three communities have demonstrated that, working together, people in communities can make a difference and improve the factors that influence health. We anticipate that the six newest communities will continue to model this and help us prove that community driven and led efforts to improve health can be successful in both rural and urban communities across North Carolina.
Most recently you spent more than 15 years with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest health-focused philanthropy in the country. What lessons or approaches will you bring from working at a national scale that can be applied at the state level?
First and foremost, national philanthropies like RWJF have come to realize that the most effective and dynamic source of positive change are communities and states across the country. Further, the evidence is strong that when people in communities from many sectors come together to work on problems they think are important, progress on improving health occurs. When health care, public health, and social services come together with local experts and advocates in transportation, education, housing, and food you have the right people at the table for change. The most successful are those where communities have adopted common goals, have an inclusive governance, stable financing and accountability, and shared data and metrics. As our foundation looks to help create the conditions where communities can be successful in their efforts to be healthy, these lessons can help guide us in our work.
You are trained in emergency medicine. In fact, you were the first African-American in the country trained in this discipline. What has emergency medicine taught you about health and health care in America?
Working in the emergency department you become intimately aware of the failings of our health care, public health, and social service systems. My experience taught me that providing the best care to the person in front of me was not enough. There is an old public health parable that talks about the man who pulls a drowning person out of a river. Just as he finishes pulling one person out, he hears cries from another person in the river. This happens over and over again. Finally, he goes upstream to stop the person who was pushing the people in the water. Working in the emergency department, I learned about the importance of providing high quality care while also addressing the upstream conditions that resulted in the visit in the first place.
You were also the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health before entering philanthropy. How has your public health background informed your perspectives as a grantmaker?
Working in the emergency department led me to become involved in public health to address the upstream issues that drive health outcomes. While in public health, I learned about the great disparities that exist based on race, ethnicity, geography, sexual identity, and income. These disparities impact the health of a community, a city, and a state. I also learned that solutions that work in a big city might not work in a rural community. I learned that each community has unique circumstances that have to be addressed to find the best path to health. That is why I believe in taking a health equity approach to grantmaking, finding solutions that respect the character and challenges of each community.
In your opinion, what is the most pressing issue facing North Carolina where health-focused philanthropy has a real opportunity to make meaningful impact?
It is absolutely critical that we as a state recognize that health happens where we live, learn, work, play, and pray, not in clinical settings. To become a healthier state, we must address the factors that influence health in each community, the drivers of health - like access to healthy foods, safe places to exercise, affordable housing, and transportation. While no one philanthropy has the resources to fund change in each community, we can partner with others to provide the tools to enable communities to learn from each other and help to change the policy environment to make it easier for communities to be successful in improving their health.
What excites you most about your new home state of North Carolina?
The opportunities to make a difference and the incredible spirit and determination of the people working in their communities to make them healthier places to live.
What would surprise most people to learn about you?
I am proud to be one of only a handful of physicians awarded honorary fellowship in the American Academy of Nursing.
What types of things do you like to do in your free time?
I am an avid movie fan with a strong leaning toward science fiction. I also enjoy working out and walking in my neighborhood, as well as working on mechanical objects, especially building clocks.
One of your passions is technology. What gadget has your attention these days?
I have been learning how to use my 3D printer. It is interesting to see the potential impact of this technology on health care and everyday life.