UMass Boston’s new nursing dean committed to erasing health disparities
From Detroit to Baltimore to Kowloon, Hong Kong, Linda Thompson has spent her career teaching and providing health care in urban areas. Her new position as dean of UMass Boston’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences (CNHS) is a continuation of this lifelong mission.
“There’s a strong commitment on this campus to equity, with a focus on health equity and justice. There is an interest in doing things that are just for people,” said Thompson, who most recently served as health sciences dean at West Chester University, outside Philadelphia.
“I looked at the work that UMass Boston is doing, and my background, and it just seemed like such a wonderful fit. I really intentionally wanted to be in a place that had a lot of values that were similar to mine.”
Thompson’s focus on improving health outcomes for vulnerable populations goes back decades. Her first grant, from the mayor of Detroit, funded a study of teen pregnancy in that city. As a graduate and doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, she worked for one of the first clinics and family support centers focused on young mothers.
Her dissertation focused on two Maryland counties whose decisions were leaving behind children of color.
“I surveyed all of the children who were eighth graders,” she said. “All of the people who were having trouble filling out the survey were all black boys—they were in eighth grade but they were 15, 16, 17 years of age. Typically they’re 13. …
“I asked the superintendent what would happen to those young men, and he told me that they would wind up in jail. And I said, ‘And we just accept that?’ It was really one of those kind of wake-up moments for me," she said.
Thompson, who was placed in foster care with her two sisters after their mother became ill, says America needs a greater focus on ensuring children have the chance to grow and develop in a healthy environment.
“We have a lot of information about what we need to do in order to promote optimum development. Children should not have to suffer because of the circumstances of their birth or things that may have happened in their family,” she said. “I have a passion about that, and it has really fueled the direction of a lot of the work I have done.”
At UMass Boston, Thompson wants to build on CNHS’s status as the only public university in one of America’s most advanced cities for health care.
“There is such a wealth of organizations here that have been pioneers, doing some wonderful work in health care, like the Dana Farber and the Brigham. I think our students have the opportunity to be exposed to some of the best health care in the world.”
And the benefits go both ways. Students draw on the expertise and resources of the country’s top doctors and hospitals, and health care organizations have access to a diverse group of highly skilled young workers.
“Most of the health care institutions in this area want to expand diversity, and I think the fact that this campus has such a large minority population is a good thing for the health care systems to want to connect with us, so they can have the type of staff in their institutions that really mirrors the community.”
Thompson is also an advocate of switching from a sickness model of health care, in which illnesses are treated after they have developed, to a wellness model that prioritizes preventive care. Part of that effort is a focus on CNHS’s other health-care disciplines, such as nutrition and physical and occupational therapy.
“Exposing people to the broad opportunities that are available in the health profession is something that we are able to do,” Thompson said.