World Traveler Dr. Lisa Simpson Drives Health Policy Innovation

Dr. Lisa Simpson

Lisa Simpson, MB, BCH, MPH, FAAP is a true citizen of the world. As president and CEO of AcademyHealth, she has boosted critical conversations within health policy and health services research in Washington, D.C. and across the United States. Her leadership at AcademyHealth is informed and inspired by her collection of global experiences and her endless devotion to gathering international expertise on public health, medicine, and health policy. Dr. Simpson is guided by a cultural humility and practical focus on improvement, and she consistently demonstrates insight and leadership to direct others to the best health services, strategies, and solutions.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and AcademyHealth have worked together on many U.S.-based initiatives and projects during Dr. Simpson's tenure. Dr. Feinstein chaired a 2017 AcademyHealth National Health Policy Conference plenary session on healthcare innovation, and then later that year, JHF funded and worked with AcademyHealth to convene an invitational meeting in Washington, D.C. on evaluating complex health interventions, followed by the development of an evaluation guide. A 2019 JHF grant to AcademyHealth supported the Teen Mental Health Crises: A National Policy and Action Summit in Washington, D.C., from which AcademyHealth published a teen mental health policy playbook. JHF also sponsored a 2021 Health Policy Salon on maternal mortality held by AcademyHealth.

Dr. Simpson has also been a wonderful partner globally with JHF. Dr. Simpson invited JHF President and CEO Karen Wolk Feinstein, PhD to the 2014 Global Health Conference in South Africa, which jumpstarted JHF's community health worker agenda. In Austria, Dr. Feinstein attended Salzburg's Global Seminar program with Dr. Simpson twice, once with a focus on implementation science and again when the topic was patient safety reporting. Dr. Simpson has joined JHF for additional study tours in Israel and England.

Dr. Simpson's world travels began early in life, as her father was in the foreign service and her whole family moved to a new country every two years. She learned to speak both English and French and attended high school in Marseilles, France, while spending summers at her family home in Ireland, where she worked as a waitress. She attended Trinity College in Ireland, initially inspired to pursue an acting career through Dublin's theatre scene. However, as a self-described pragmatic risk-taker, Dr. Simpson switched to the medical track, in pursuit of a stable career that would give her more choices, financial independence, and the opportunity to travel.

"A lot of my choices and opportunities throughout my career have been more about serendipity than planning," said Dr. Simpson. Many of these opportunities appeared during her global travels. While in medical school, she spent a summer at a mission hospital in Dabou on the Ivory Coast and discovered a passion for pediatrics. After completing her medical degree, she jumped at the opportunity to complete a pediatrics residency in Hawaii, which sounded like a welcome respite "after seven years of rain" in Ireland. 

During her pediatric training, Dr. Simpson observed that illness and poor outcomes were higher among low income, indigenous communities, which inspired her to complete a master's degree in epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, followed by a preventive medicine residency and pediatric infectious disease fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

Karen Wolk Feinstein (left) and Lisa Simpson in Salzburg, Austria, 2019

She returned to Hawaii to become the chief of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau at the state department of health. Challenges came in the form of complicated, bureaucratic funding structures, and Dr. Simpson stepped away. After nine months of reflection while traveling in southeast Asia, she realized she wanted to break down these barriers and enter the health policy field.

After Dr. Simpson completed a postdoctoral fellowship in health policy and health services research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), her late mentor Philip Lee, MD, who founded and led the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UCSF, introduced her to Washington, D.C. There, Dr. Simpson began her health policy career at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, serving for seven years as the deputy director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. She went on to hold professorships at the University of South Florida and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center before becoming president and CEO of AcademyHealth in 2011.

In 2019 and 2020, Dr. Simpson joined the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF)'s patient safety initiatives to help spark conversations about health policy solutions for patient safety, as part of the SWERVE and Full Court Press movements. AcademyHealth and JHF also partnered in 2021 to hold a closed-door virtual policy session on maternal health priorities.

Dr. Simpson notes there is much work yet to be done in the U.S., especially in relation to inequality, racism, and health disparities, as illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Referencing the Commonwealth Fund's Mirror, Mirror 2021: Reflecting Poorly report, she says, "No one country stands out on all dimensions…but regardless of the health system, one of the constants is that America is not at the top." In fact, the United States ranks last overall among 11 high-income countries – but Dr. Simpson is committed to continuing her work to change this.

Outside of work, Dr. Simpson loves to cook, take walks, and travel. She calls Dr. Feinstein a favorite travelling companion. Dr. Simpson says that Dr. Feinstein is "not afraid to ask some tough questions, question assumptions, and push boundaries," a passion which they share. 

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