Creating more inclusive practices across health care — from greater access for underserved communities to more minority representation among providers — is a deeply personal mission for Dr. Andrea Willis.
"My birth certificate says I'm colored, and you think about what that means, what that means in the South," says Willis, the chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. "It was something I was born into. You don't want to see those things persist."
Willis was raised in rural Alabama, and grew up knowing she wanted to be a doctor so she could help other people, she says.
"I was raised with the mindset that you're blessed to be a blessing to others," Willis says. "I went into pediatrics so I could be a role model to children, get to them before the world imposes so many things on them."
After medical school at Georgetown University, Willis had the opportunity to earn a master's degree in public health in maternal and child health at Johns Hopkins University. That experience strengthened her desire to build more equitable and accessible paths to health care, she says.
"I knew I wanted to be a doctor — that never changed," she says. "I knew I wanted to do something on a public health basis, something bigger."
As deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, she created statewide initiatives to help people find affordable health care providers. She was the first director of the state's CoverKids program, and developed Tennessee's federally approved State Children's Health Insurance program.
"My mantra was, 'We are public health,'" Willis says.
Her role at BlueCross has become a forum for continuing that focus on access and equity in medicine, she says.
"The fact that this company treasures [diversity, equity and inclusion] has made it an even better fit," she says. "The leaders of this company told me, 'Use this platform to advance the things that are important to you.'"
A year ago, she spearheaded a partnership with Meharry Medical College in Nashville, one of the oldest historically Black medical colleges in the country, to share data, combat vaccine hesitancy and increase education on the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine.
"They're a trusted community partner, and there's a lot we can do there that opens doors," she says.
One key challenge is addressing the social determinants of health that undermine minority communities every day, long before they seek health care, she adds.
Dr. Andrea Willis
* Role: Senior vice president and chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee
* Career: Before joining BlueCross in 2009, Willis served as the first director of Tennessee’s CoverKids program, and developed the state’s federally approved Children’s Health Insurance Program. She’d also served as deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, and created statewide initiatives to improve the health of Tennesseans.
* Personal: Willis recently took a road trip to Portland, Oregon, with her son, Cam, to get him settled there to begin law school. She loves to travel and read mystery novels, and has run 10 half marathons.
"The tensions around racial injustice tear at people on a daily basis," Willis says. "We have to tackle those things more wholeheartedly."
On the other side of the equity issue is the development of a wider network of health care providers from minority communities, she adds.
"Our diversity scholarship to deserving students going into health care fields, that's one of the brightest days of the entire year to give those out," she says.
CHAMPIONS OF HEALTH CARE 2021