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Siteman Cancer Center announces inaugural associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion

Washington University School of Medicine

Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., announces the appointment of Vetta Sanders Thompson, PhD, as its inaugural Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Dr. Thompson is a nationally recognized researcher, educator, and advocate for the health and well-being of diverse communities. Her research focuses on the areas of health services access, determinants of health and mental health disparities, racial identity, and psychosocial implications of race and ethnicity in health communications. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and earned her doctorate degree in psychology and clinical training from Duke University in Durham, NC, in 1988. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social relations from Harvard University.

Concurrent with her new role, Dr. Thompson is the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion & Equity at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. She also is the co-director of the University’s Center for Community Health Partnership and Research.

“Dr. Thompson is eminently qualified to lead our efforts to enhance and expand diversity within our leadership team, research workforce, and advisory boards,” said Timothy J. Eberlein, MD, Director of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor and Bixby Professor and Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. “She already serves in multiple leadership roles at Siteman, including as co-leader of the Community Research Fellow Training Program and as Assistant Director for the Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination Program. In addition, she has been an active member of the institution’s Community Outreach and Engagement leadership team. Her new, larger leadership role reflects the commitment of Siteman Cancer Center to advocate, support and mentor diversity and inclusion at all levels.”

Dr. Thompson’s focus on health disparities began with efforts to better understand and improve access to mental health services within African American communities. As she investigated a wide range of social variables and disparities, her research broadened to include expanded access for cancer preventive strategies and treatment in underserved communities.

“At the time I began my work in cancer disparities, I noticed that colorectal cancer had higher mortality disparities among African Americans but was not studied as much as the commonly studied breast and prostate cancers,” Dr. Thompson said. “Even though there were proven preventive strategies and screenings available that could remove cancerous polyps right away, the mortality rate for colorectal cancer remained higher in this community. I wanted to know why screening was not accessed.”

What she found was that the ability or willingness to undergo cancer screenings, such as colonoscopy, was lower in communities struggling with insurance and access to primary care.

“If they were uninsured or under-insured, or when they couldn’t afford insurance co-pays, it all impacted access and use of cancer prevention tools,” Dr. Thompson said.

Her long-standing published research, funded by the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Missouri Foundation for Health’s Center for Health Literacy, Siteman Cancer Center’s Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD) – among others – all has focused on the development of multidisciplinary, collaborative and community-based programs to better understand and eliminate disparities of cancer education, prevention, and treatment.

Toward the goal, she has developed numerous community research survey tools selected for inclusion by the American Psychological Association (psycTESTS) to gauge attitudes of culture, racial discrimination, identity, and psychosocial health in African American communities. Her work within PECaD also led to a collaborative effort to develop a new community Research Engagement Survey Tool (REST) that now is being used to assess community engagement not only in cancer prevention but also in other areas of health research. Among her outreach efforts, she helped to expand community awareness and utilization of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine among African Americans.

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Dr. Thompson received the Missouri Psychological Association’s Dr. Richard R. Wilkerson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. She also is the recipient of a Distinguished Faculty Award from Washington University and is a two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis. In 2018, she was named the Terry Leet Researcher of the Year by Generate Health St. Louis.

Dr. Thompson has been with Washington University since 2008. Prior to that, she served as associate professor in the School of Public Health at Saint Louis University and as an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In her new leadership role at Siteman, Dr. Thompson will work closely with Sherree Wilson, PhD, Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Washington University School of Medicine, to advance shared goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

“This is not a solo endeavor,” Dr. Thompson said. “At every level, from education to research and clinical care, we are working to create a best practice model that ensures all individuals — and all communities —have access to, feel welcomed, and can present their whole and authentic being as they are made aware of and then seek cancer prevention strategies and care.”

She added, “Truly, it’s a process of looking at outcomes data and clinical care services to assure we are attentive to the needs of the entire community, including those experiencing the greatest needs for cancer care.”