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Alumni Profile: Donna Thompson

Chief Executive Officer, Access Community Health Network

Donna Thompson

“The DePaul way,” according to Donna Thompson, CEO of Access Community Health Network (ACCESS) and twice graduate of DePaul University (BSN ’86, MSN ’88), “is to really look at issues around health equity and look at it through a social justice lens.”

Of the seventy-seven community areas in Chicago, Thompson estimates that ACCESS serves patients from at least sixty-six of those areas. Unfortunately, there is a large disparity in health outcomes among those neighborhoods. “If we look at a community like Lawndale, and compare it to a community twenty miles further north,” says Thompson, “There is a twenty-year difference in life expectancy. Twenty years. I often say that there are two Chicagos. Our role is to ensure that where you live, where you grow up, where you worship, that these do not designate what your life expectancy will be.”

For Thompson, this often means taking underserved patients on a journey of discovering what is possible. “Many of our patients, if they had a grandmother or grandfather who lost their eyesight or a limb because of diabetes, many of our patients think that that’s going to be their legacy—that that’s what is going to happen to them.”

Thompson, for one, is not willing to accept that outcome. “A large part of my job as CEO is to make sure that we look at the structural issues in our society and address those so that we can have open and equal access for our patients.”

Before embarking on the administrative path, Thompson began her career as a pediatric nurse at Decatur Memorial Hospital after graduating from that institution’s diploma program. “As soon as I got my license,” Thompson recalls, “I was put on the 3-11 shift, and I was put in charge. I was barely 21 years old.” At that time, physicians were mainly in private practice, meaning that it was the nurses who staffed the hospital and managed patient care. “Those early years really taught me the value of teamwork, of relying on the team of people you work with for their expertise and experience. If you’re going to get a job done and do it well, it’s not dependent on one person but really the sum of all parts.”

It would be Thompson’s next job, as a Neonatal ICU nurse who also did flight nursing at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, which truly prepared her for a role in administration. “I learned not only how to utilize my critical skills, but also how to listen and assess the situation,” says Thompson. In flight nursing, “Many times what you were told by phone was not what you saw when you got there. You had to quickly make decisions on your feet, based not only on the information you had but also on the resources on hand.”

Thompson would earn her Bachelor’s in Nursing and Master’s in Nursing Administration from DePaul before eventually joining ACCESS, first as Chief Operating Officer in 1995, then as Chief Executive Officer in 2004. The decision-making skillset that Thompson picked up as a nurse would serve her well at ACCESS, where each community displays entirely unique needs.

As a direct result of the diversity of their patient population, ACCESS focuses on reaching patients where they are, not just in terms of location, but where they are in life. “All our neighborhoods are different,” notes Thompson. “But what you do is you go in and find out what’s important to each community and what you can align around and unify as a major voice.  For example, we have strong relationships in the faith-based community, and that is very intentional.”

In the early 2000s, ACCESS began a campaign to fight the disproportionately high breast cancer mortality rates of African-American and Hispanic women compared to their white counterparts in Chicago. During the 2003 gubernatorial race, advocacy and organizing helped ACCESS to secure $4 million for the state of Illinois to support breast cancer screenings, regardless of insurance status. In 2007, ACCESS started Pin-A-Sister™/Examínate Comadre™, a faith-based approach that engages clergy in the community to help educate African-American and Hispanic women about the importance of early detection. Since 2004 alone, ACCESS has provided more than 175,000 screenings for uninsured women.

Through ACCESS, Thompson also tries to educate patients about how political changes can affect them. “When you work with an underserved population, when the rest of the nation sneezes or gets the sniffles, our population gets the flu or pneumonia. I say that because, many times the people who have the least voice and are the least recognized are most affected by legislation and policy changes.” To increase awareness and participation in the political process, ACCESS’ online patient portal now includes a link where patients can register to vote. “How we’re thinking about health and wellness isn’t just around how do we prevent disease, but also how we can level the playing field for our patients and better engage them as their own advocates.”

Over time, the face of the underserved has changed, and ACCESS has changed with them, recently moving out into communities like Arlington Heights, Bloomingdale, and Chicago Heights, where they are taking care of working families. “One size does not fit all,” notes Thompson, and this keeps ACCESS nimble, looking for new services that may help their patients. Recently, ACCESS has begun a pilot to embed legal assistance into one of their health centers for patients who have lost insurance benefits. “As the attorney is working with our patients and families they can also document within the medical record what some of the issues are and how they are working with our patients to help address and mitigate legal concerns.”

This kind of inter-professional collaboration is needed, and Thompson believes that DePaul is ready to meet this challenge. “One of the things that I am most proud of is that DePaul has continued to be an anchor around health sciences.” Thompson was impressed by the vision of Gerry Koocher, Dean of the College of Science and Health, “not just for nursing but for all the disciplines in health science. It really is about how we can coordinate these teams of professionals to have maximum impact, not just on patients and families, but on entire communities.”

Thompson advises students and younger nursing professionals to “follow your passion for how you’re going to make a difference. What I love about DePaul is not just the mission, but also the idea of living by Vincentian values. I always say that if you live by your values, that should be your compass. That will lead you to the opportunities that you need to have not only to strengthen your practice and your skills, but also to give what most of us have gone into nursing for – to really make a difference in the life of our patients and families.”