Kathie Westpheling, MPH, joined the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved (ACU) as a project director shortly after its incorporation as a nonprofit in 1996. In the years to come, she would grow to lead the organization as its Executive Director from 2002 until her retirement in 2013. In that time, she guided ACU’s growth and witnessed a decade of programs, advocacy, and evolution. In this interview, she shares reminiscences from our organization’s 25 years of working to improve the health of people who are underserved and the clinicians working to assist them.
How did you first come to ACU?
I had a long history of working with a National Health Service Corps-related project, and I was brought on as a project director to work on ACU’s planning of the Corps’ 25th Anniversary. My interest in ACU stemmed from how it could give me the chance to support health professionals in training and clinicians working for underserved communities. Over the years, we grew to encompass further projects with added staff, including interdisciplinary training to help prevent early childhood dental caries among many others. Eventually, we moved from Kentucky to Virginia, where I helped to run ACU from my home office until I was able to co-locate it in the HIMSS Government Relations Offices in 2007.
How has ACU evolved over the years?
There’s a lot we did as a little organization to help clinicians be successful—and with very few dollars. We took on education for health professionals to learn to recognize pediatric environmental asthma triggers through the development of a clinical decision support tool. We did work on the impacts of limited language proficiency on care, health literacy, and access to pharmaceuticals. We also tackled clinician wellness via our Strength for Serving program to help address compassion fatigue and burnout. At the time, clinicians who spoke about work-life balance were often stigmatized—“you’re not tough enough.” Now we’ve recognized more and more, especially with COVID, that the effects of burnout on wellbeing and quality of care are very real.
We were at the forefront of that, and of health information technology as founding members of the National IT Collaborative for the Underserved. There wasn’t any topic that we didn’t touch in some way, shape, or form, really. We always tried to be a forefront of things that were needed for clinicians to be successful.
What has remained consistent about ACU in its history?
We’ve always been a clinician-focused professional development and advocacy organization. That’s united our work both on the policy side to make sure that clinicians and the communities they serve are represented and to give them the tools and resources to support that work. We wanted to ensure that when clinicians came together at ACU, they never had to explain who they were working for and trying to serve. It was an understood emotional connection: we’re here to enhance and enrich each other and come back and do more. Clinicians have always needed that renewal and to have their work and concerns highlighted, and COVID-19 has made that even more important. Adopting the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved (JHCPU) as ACU’s official journal have given a voice for our clinicians and the research they have completed.
What does ACU mean to you?
It’s personal to me. I’ve always been oriented toward public health, workforce development, and primary care. I was also a public health nutritionist, and one of the first WIC nutritionists in the country. ACU brought respect for me and my discipline as a multidisciplinary organization, and it’s always been a group of people who didn’t wear their titles and degrees on their sleeves. It didn’t matter if you were an DDS, an MD, or an CHW—your voice was equal. And ultimately, ACU is a home for people who want to be recognized for the delivery of high quality, culturally compassionate healthcare to a population that is often overlooked and misunderstood. When you come to us, those principles are underlined and respected.
This interview is part of ACU’s 25th Anniversary Celebration. Learn more about the celebration and ACU’s continuing work to improve the health of underserved populations and to support the clinicians working with them.