Taking Joy in Giving Back

Janice Phillips, PhD, RN, overcame homelessness to become leader in health equity
A smiling woman stands outside a building near a group of colorful plants

After experiencing homelessness and lack of access to medical care while growing up on Chicago's South Side, Janice Phillips, PhD, RN, CENP, FAAN, committed herself to diminishing barriers to care and helping young nurses thrive. The director of nursing research and health equity at RUSH University Medical Center since 2017 and an associate professor in the RUSH University College of Nursing's Department of Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing, Phillips has been striving for decades to make a diffe​rence for people in Chicago's communities and for the next generation of health care leaders.

This work has earned her multiple honors. Most recently, Phillips received the SAGE Award at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Nursing's annual Power of Nursing Leadership conference on Nov. 4. The SAGE award is given to nurses to make a significant impact as advisors and mentors to the nurse leaders of tomorrow. It was a homecoming for Phillips, who received her PhD​ from the UIC College of Nursing in 1994.  

In July, Phillips received the National Black Nurses Association's Lifetime Achievers award for her exemplary leadership and dedication to the nursing and health care field, practice, academia and service. She also recently was appointed to the advisory board of the National Academy of Medicine's Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellows program. Phillips is an alumnus of the program herself, and worked in the office of United States Senator John D. Rockefeller IV during her fellowship from 2010 to 2011.

“While it is always an honor to receive recognition for my professional and voluntary contributions to reducing disparities and advancing the nursing profession, my work is underscored by a strong commitment to ensure that those who have helped me along the way witness a good return on their investment," Phillips says.  

Prior to her current roles, Phillips worked areas including oncology, public health, women's health, health care disparities and research administration. Today, she serves as a system-wide leader in supporting health equity as a shared goal by integrating health equity across RUSH University System for Health's education, research and clinical programs. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Phillips' leadership in this area was recognized when she was featured in Johnson & Johnson's “Starting the Conversation," a series of online video discussions with black doctors and nurses on the front lines of health equity.  

In her faculty role in the College of Nursing, a top-ranked nursing college, she works on projects with early career faculty and students. An accomplished researcher, Phillips is the author of more than 100 publications, five edited textbooks, and a health policy column for Minority Nurse magazine. She's also written numerous op-eds for publications including The Hill, World News Report and Morning Consult as a participant in the college's Public Voice Fellowship.  

“Janice is the shining example of what passionate and dedicated nurses can accomplish," says Angelique Richard, PhD, RN, CENP, chief nursing officer of RUSH and CNO and senior vice president of hospital operations at RUSH University Medical Center. “She is an advocate for lasting change within our health care systems that will advance health equity and establish a pathway for nurses, physicians, and other clinicians from diverse backgrounds." 

An unexpected opportunity and a good decision

During her childhood, Phillips experienced homelessness, and she was eventually placed in foster care. Fortunately, a social worker saw Phillips' potential and ensured she became the first in her family to attend college.  

“My journey in nursing began during my senior year in high school when Anna Mae Earles, my Illinois Department of Children and Family Services-appointed social worker, smiled and said, 'you have potential.'" Phillips recalls. “She made it her business that I get into college, although my hopes of attending college were dim at that time in my life. Thankfully, Mrs. Earles lived to see me graduate college, which made her very proud."

Despite the challenges she faced, Phillips earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from North Park College and a Master of Science in community health from St. Xavier University, both in Chicago, then later went on to UIC for her doctorate.  

“I had originally wanted to be a teacher until I was told that all of my high school classmates were pursuing teaching careers. I knew that nurses helped people, so I thought that this would be a good choice for me," she says. “Thankfully pursuing nursing has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made."

Committed to equity and excellence in every role  

After Phillips graduated from nursing school, she began her career as a staff nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center. After two years working in a unit that treated rheumatology and endocrine patients and patients in clinical research trials, she transferred to an adult emergency department, where her passion for community and public health flourished, and she saw firsthand the disparities that primarily affected Black patients.  

Phillips transitioned to working at a nationally recognized community health center, where she was providing breast and cervical cancer screenings. There, she met David Ansell, MD, MPH — now the senior vice president for community health equity for Rush University Medical Center and associate provost for community affairs for RUSH University — who became one of the mentors who encouraged her to pursue doctoral studies and helped deepen her interest in behavioral research.  

Phillips completed her dissertation, “Adherence to Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines among African American Women of Differing Employment Status," and began conducting research internationally before moving to Baltimore to work as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. She received an American Cancer Society Professorship in Oncology Nursing to advance her breast cancer disparities research.  

She proceeded to hold a wide range of teaching and research roles, including a faculty position with the University of Chicago Medical Center — which honored her with the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2006; being a program director for the National Institute of Nursing Research (one of the National Institutes of Health); and the director of government and regulatory affairs for the Commission on Graduates from Foreign Nursing Schools International.  

She brought a commitment to equity in all these roles, managing grants and career development awards in women's health and health disparities for NINR; developing community outreach and programming that increased cancer screening in underserved populations at U of C; analyzing data to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care during her Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellowship; and leading CGFNS in securing reauthorization from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue certificates to provide work visa screenings.  

When asked what keeps her motivated, Phillips remarked, “Quite frankly, being an overcomer motivates me! I am fortunate to have numerous opportunities to serve within and outside of nursing. There's joy in giving back to the universe, especially in light of my humble beginnings.  

“Nursing is a noble, honorable and rewarding career that makes it possible to literally change lives," Phillips reflects. “While it can be hard at times, it can also be very gratifying, and a nurse must be committed to excellence regardless of specialty, position or work setting. I am extremely grateful to have built a career in this field, partly because the diverse range of specialties and opportunities within the field of nursing far outshines that of other professions."

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