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Meet Chief Health Equity Executive Dinee C. Simpson, MD, FACS

Dinee C. Simpson, MD, FACS, joined Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as its first Black transplant surgeon in 2018. She became the founding director of the African American Transplant Access Program in 2019, and in August of this year, Dr. Simpson added Chief Health Equity Executive to her growing list of leadership roles. Her new role is the first of its kind at Northwestern Medicine. Here, Dr. Simpson discusses her vision for realizing health equity for all patients.

You are the first Black female transplant surgeon in Illinois, and you lead the Northwestern Medicine African American Transplant Access Program. How has your work to date helped prepare you to lead the Office of Health Equity?

I see being the first Black person to do something as not necessarily something to be celebrated, but rather a reason to reflect on why it is notable. It begs the questions, “Why hasn’t it happened sooner? What are the obstacles in place that make it so difficult for others to do the same?” Having this lived experience has provided me a unique foundation and insight when approaching the challenges of health equity.

Additionally, my background in transplant provides a special lens on health equity because we are dealing with both a scarce resource (the organs) as well as disease states that often disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Health inequity in transplant is a glaring example of how simply opening the doors to all does not guarantee that everyone can achieve their best level of health. Sitting in listing committee meetings, it becomes very obvious how social determinants and institutional barriers play an enormous role in deciding life or death for many of these patients.

I developed the African American Transplant Access Program (AATAP) to be a multi-level intervention that provides resources and solutions to break down structural and institutional barriers to transplant. Over the past four years, AATAP has seen fantastic growth in many ways, not just in patient access and outcomes, but also in clinician knowledge and behaviors when it comes to recognizing health inequity and creating change. I’ve come to realize that the health equity work I do in the transplant space is highly adaptable across many disease states and to different marginalized communities. I am honored to bring this experience to the health system as a whole, and also excited to learn from so many others here who are doing health equity work and research.

What is your vision for the Office of Health Equity, and what do you see as the most important initial work of this new office?

The broad vision is to draw together all of the incredible expertise we have in our health system to create a powerhouse that will leverage both existing resources and new ideas to realize health equity for all of our patients. I believe we have the potential to be national leaders in this space.

I think the most important initial work is mainly to listen: to the communities we serve, to our NM community health workers and care teams, to our quality leaders, and to all those who share a passion for this work. Health equity work requires a team effort, and I am looking forward to learning from others and sharing ideas as we take on this important work and shape the initiatives of this office.

Will you continue to see patients and perform surgery in your new role?

Being a transplant surgeon is a core piece of my identity, and it also grounds me in the clinical space so that I also have “eyes on the ground,” so to speak. Moreover, being in the operating room brings me joy and immense satisfaction. So, while my clinical footprint will be somewhat reduced, it will definitely not go away.

What is the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?

The best leadership advice I have received is to never be above learning from others. No one knows everything there is to know, regardless of their leadership position. When I did my residency at Harvard, it was the culture to always wear a short white coat, which signified being a forever learner. Initially it was off-putting to see a senior surgeon — who in my eyes knew it all — show up in this attire that normally differentiated a student from faculty. It was a lesson in humility, leadership and education that I will never forget.

You’re also a board member of the National Kidney Foundation, an active humanitarian, a wife and a mother of two boys. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I admit I am a hardcore soccer mom. If I am not at my sons’ games, I am watching English Premier League with my husband and sons. Outside of that, I enjoy running and biking, creating fancy cakes, and nothing beats a good jigsaw puzzle.