How Lifetime Achievement winner Dr. Olivia Thomas stands against racism

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Dr. Olivia Thomas

Dr. Olivia Thomas, Nationwide Children’s Hospital: Lifetime Achievement winner, Columbus CEO Healthcare Achievement Awards 2021

When Dr. Olivia Thomas was growing up in a small Kentucky town, she was the neighborhood babysitter who fixed all the cuts and bruises when children fell off their bikes or got hurt playing sports. During high school, she was drawn to the sciences, and she loved the experiments she got to work on in the lab. In the late 1960s, she’d combine those two interests to begin the educational journey of a medical doctor at a time when the Civil Rights Act had just allowed Black students to be admitted into all U.S. medical schools.

More:See all Healthcare Achievement winners 2021

Those loves of science and children were the foundation for what’s now a 45-year career as a pediatrician, advocate, mentor and leader. And though she’s beyond traditional retirement age, the persistent challenges of race and health equity have made it impossible for Thomas to step away.

“I’ve been trying to retire for five years now,” says Thomas, chief diversity and health equity officer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Something will always come up and I’ll think, ‘Oh, OK, I’ve got to stay until we at least get this done.’ ”

In 2020, what came up was Covid-19, which disproportionately affected people of color, and unrest because of continued police killings of unarmed black men. Thomas pushed retirement aside to continue the fight for health equity for all families, to stand against racism and to help improve the diversity and inclusion culture at the hospital.

Standing against racism

After graduating with a Doctor of Medicine degree from Creighton University College of Medicine in 1976, Thomas moved to Columbus to complete her internship and residency in Ohio State University’s Department of Pediatrics and what was then Columbus Children’s Hospital.

In 1985, she became the medical director of what’s now called the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Primary Care Network. Under her leadership, the network has grown to 12 locations.

In 1999, she became section chief of ambulatory pediatrics at the hospital and chief of the ambulatory division in the Department of Pediatrics at Ohio State, roles she would maintain until 2017.

Today, Thomas continues as a professor of pediatrics at Ohio State and is a member of the medical staff at Nationwide Children’s. In recognition of her decades of leadership and the increasing importance of addressing disparity and health equity issues, Thomas was elevated to a new institution-wide position in 2018—chief diversity and health equity officer. CEO Tim Robinson, President and COO Rick Miller and Chief of Pediatrics Dr. John Barnard were advocates for this new role.

Thomas has been working closely with Chief Human Resources Officer Lorina Wise and LaVone Caldwell, the director of health equity. Thomas and Wise have held listening sessions with hospital staff, and information gleaned from the discussions is guiding the development of a diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and health equity plan called “Stand Against Racism. Stand For Health Equity.”

“I’ve been doing diversity equity and inclusion as part of my work forever, but I think what has happened over the last three years is that I’m now able to share that passion with others at the hospital in a position of influence,” Thomas says. “This is not all new work for the hospital either. Since the beginning, the hospital’s mission has been to care for all children regardless of the family’s ability to pay. This is one path to achieving health equity. The hospital has also been active in the community surrounding our campus, helping to stabilize housing, education, safety, health and economics for families in the area for the past 10 years.”

Constant improvement

Thomas, who has mentored many health care professionals, says several role models helped advance her career. Early mentors include Dr. Antoinette Eaton, Dr. Grant Morrow and Dr. Bruce Meyer. Thomas’ first nurse, Lucille Tillery—who had experience as a public health nurse —taught her how to be a good doctor. That served Thomas well as a practitioner, and as she expanded the primary care network of clinics in underserved areas of the city, she worked to tackle racial disparities in infant mortality, installed clinics in schools and got mobile units up and running.

Deena Chisolm, Nationwide Foundation endowed chair in health equity research, was one of Thomas’ mentees and affectionately refers to her as “Mama.”

In nomination materials, Chisolm wrote: “I have watched her nurture a generation of diverse health care providers and watched her push our organization to constantly improve the quality and equity of care that our institution provides. She is a force of nature in advocating for the health of children at (the hospital) and beyond.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Dr. Olivia Thomas

Chief diversity and health equity officer, Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Age: 70

In role since: 2018 (With the hospital since 1979) 

Experience: Clinical professor, department of pediatrics, Ohio State University College of Medicine; past division chief/section chief, ambulatory pediatrics, Nationwide Children’s Hospital; past chair, Ohio Commission on Minority Health Board

Education: Bachelor of Science, Kentucky State University; Doctor of Medicine, Creighton University College of Medicine; pediatric residency, Columbus Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University College of Medicine

Community involvement: Board member, Franklin County Child Development Council Head Start Program, Center for Family Safety & Healing, Partners for Kids; member, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kentucky State University Alumni Association, National Medical Association