Leadership is all around us in the Pittsburgh region. As part of an occasional series, ImaginePittsburghNow.com is recognizing outstanding local business and community leaders with a series of short profiles. Dr. Rhonda Moore Johnson was suggested by the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania. Suggestions for other individuals to recognize may be sent to bpfister AT alleghenyconference DOT org.
Dr. Rhonda Moore Johnson is the medical director of health equity and quality services at Highmark Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh. She spent part of her childhood in public housing and graduated from South Hills High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard, a medical degree from Penn State University and master’s in public health from Ohio State University.
A former pediatrician, she leads Highmark’s efforts to reduce racial and ethnic health care disparities among the insurers’ members through clinical interventions and improvements in health literacy, language access and health-plan cultural competency. That means – among other things — training health care providers and their staff to share information with patients in plain language, and to be on the lookout for health issues that tend to occur among certain racial, ethnic and economic groups. Her work helped Highmark become the first Blue Cross Blue Shield plan to receive a Distinction in Multicultural Health Care by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA).
What is your job? What for you is the best part of your work?
I get to do work that I’m passionate about: improving access to health care for all people. I practiced pediatric and adolescent medicine for many years, and I grew to understand that it’s not just the ability to see a doctor that matters; it’s having the whole health care system work together. Highmark is a very innovative company that invests in resources across the entire spectrum of wellness.
Why Pittsburgh? What are Pittsburgh’s unique advantages?
I’d practiced medicine for years in southwest Georgia and in Cincinnati, but I always wanted to come back home. I love the hills and the tunnels and the rivers and the bridges. Pittsburgh is a very affordable, family-friendly city with high-quality housing, close to New York, Philadelphia, DC, northern Virginia. The beach is within a day’s drive.
What opportunities have proven most helpful in your career? What barriers have you experienced?
I had wonderful teachers at my elementary school – Phillip Murray. I call them the “Kennedy Generation” of teachers. They made home visits, and took extra care to help us succeed. I also had wonderful parents and extended family, and other individuals who helped to mentor me, but the role of a teacher in a young person’s life can never be underestimated.
Much of my career has been characterized by being the first: the first African American this; the first African American woman that (to integrate certain medical practices, for example). I had a confidence and belief in myself, that all things are possible. I refused to focus on the barriers. I come back to the passage in Philippians, “I can do all things though Christ who strengthens me.” That’s always been an affirmation for me.
What are the biggest barriers to recruiting and retaining African American professionals in the Pittsburgh region? What could people in the business community do to make it easier?
Despite some perceptions to the contrary, I think there’s a decent-sized African American middle class in Pittsburgh. It’s just spread out: over the East Hills, the South and North Hills, and the center city. Some of the old-timers prefer not to cross all those bridges and tunnels and hills, and they stay in their neighborhoods. But we’re here. There are also strong institutions: the Pan-Hellenic groups, the Pittsburgh chapter of Jack and Jill of America, the NAACP, and the Urban League.
Businesses should develop a robust inclusion strategy. It’s natural to gravitate toward people who look like you, who have had similar life experiences. But lack of diversity in your workplace – of people of color, of women, of veterans – makes it harder to recruit other diverse workers. People are going to avoid workplaces where they sense a prevailing or underlying lack of upward mobility. There are professionals who can help guide you in developing strategies for greater inclusion in hiring and promotion.
What advice can you share with students or young professionals about finding a rewarding job/career? What are the most concrete bits of advice that you wish you had heard as a young professional?
I work with a lot of young people, with mentees, and I tell them: find what motivates you, what drives you, what you’re passionate about. Your work will be more rewarding if you have an emotional connection to your day-to-day career. Seek out advice beyond your friends, peers and family. Go beyond your comfort circle. What’s success for me may not be success for you; you have to define it for yourself.
And it’s possible to change careers. I did.