BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee
Andrea Willis doesn’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than a doctor. Growing up in Athens, Ala., her parents and grandparents not only supported her dreams but also instilled in her a desire to help others.
“My grandparents taught me by the way they lived that genuine caring has no boundaries,” she explained. “They were kind to everyone they came across even when people weren’t always kind to them. My grandmother is 103, and I still look to her for inspiration.”
After undergrad at the University of Alabama – Birmingham, Willis enrolled in Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Early in my career, I chose pediatrics because that is where I felt I could make the most difference,” she said. “I wanted to help children develop good habits that would lead to better health throughout life.”
During an internship with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Willis saw more clearly the need to improve health on a population basis. Watching pediatricians testify on health issues before Congress inspired her to apply her one-on-one patient experience to larger population health needs.
With a master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins, Willis used her combined skills to again reach out to the youngest members of society. “Children often don’t have a voice in what happens to them,” she noted. Willis served as deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health upon moving to Nashville in 2003. From there, she implemented and served as director of CoverKids — Tennessee’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
In October 2009, she made the move to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee where she again served as a voice for those who often go unheard — children with special needs and adults with intellectual challenges. During her tenure, she has taken on increasing leadership roles and was named the organization’s chief medical officer last year.
“The call to action for my team is ‘Every member. Every day. Quality Care Counts,’” she said of her mantra. “This means finding ways to provide better access to care, creating awareness of the preventive care that leads to better health outcomes and working with our provider partners to meet our members’ health needs.”
Although her focus is on impacting the health and quality of life for 3 million members, she said it is critical to remember that care is delivered to one person at a time. “You must always carry compassion with you and demonstrate that you genuinely care,” she said.
Willis works to inspire in her son that sense of empathy her parents and grandparents instilled in her. “I want him to see life from the perspective that we are here to serve others,” Willis said. A runner, she and Cameron, who turns 15 next month, like to participate in races that support a cause. “I want him to understand that we run for others who can’t run for themselves.”
Willis said they also like to travel and explore the world around them. Sometimes, she noted, it takes a little different perspective to actually see your surroundings. On a trip to Italy, the two climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. At some point, Willis said, it hits you that you are on the outside of the building … and it’s really leaning. Momentarily frozen in their tracks, the duo noticed a blind man making the climb. “Here he was enjoying it more than we were. We quickly got over ourselves,” Willis laughed. “I think my favorite picture of all time is my son’s face when we finally got to the top.”
Whether scaling buildings or overcoming obstacles to optimal health, Willis hopes she sets the tone by word, thought and deed. With a soft, soprano voice, Willis said she used to think she might not be heard. “I have learned over the years that the power of your voice is not in the sound. It is in what is said. My voice comes from my conviction. That compels me to champion the cause of health. For that cause, I have to make the world around me listen.”