Chicago’s new health commissioner wants equity, takes aim at disparities

In mid-November, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson appointed Dr. Olusimbo “Simbo” Ige as the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, making her the first Black woman to occupy this role on a permanent basis. 

But long before Dr. Ige would helm one of the largest public health departments in the country, she would witness the harrowing circumstances of her friends and family while growing up in southwest Nigeria, that would ultimately spark the recognition of her life’s calling by the time she was 10 years old.

Indeed, many who enter the health profession do so out of a need to improve people’s lives, but few have had to trod the road that Dr. Ige has traversed, seeing so many loved ones succumb to preventable diseases. She grew up surrounded by premature mortality, the result of living in an under-resourced community with insufficient access to healthcare. 


“So at the age of eight, I had my sister die from tuberculosis. I had a cousin die from HIV. I had friends that grew up in the same compound who died from sickle cell disease. So before I was even 10, I had the personal experience of grief and tragedy from preventable causes of death,” Dr. Ige said.


At an early age, she identified a need and sought to become a part of the solution. 

Dr. Ige said that by then, she was “awakened to the reality that waiting for someone to come help us or someone to address the issue was not coming fast enough. So, I thought I could do something, and the way I thought I could do something was to be a doctor.” 

What she experienced growing up would become a recurrent theme throughout her life and career: healing people and ensuring equitable access to health services. 

That’s the long version of the term “health equity.” 

The issue of deaths from preventable diseases due to a lack of access to healthcare is as prevalent in Lagos as it is in the South and West Sides of Chicago.

Her Vow to ‘Try Regardless’

Her wish to practice medicine seemed to be virtually impossible, especially because she grew up in a patriarchal society where women were viewed as wives and mothers. Plus, gathering the financial means to attend college, much less medical school, seemed daunting. 

“I had foster siblings. There were 17 of us children growing up and I was one of the youngest. I like to say I’m 16 of 17,” said Dr. Ige. 

Nobody else had been a doctor in my family. My parents were educated, but none of my older siblings have ventured into the field of medicine, one because it’s very expensive and it’s very challenging.”

But in high school, she had a breakthrough. 

“I had an opportunity when I was in high school to be mentored by a few people who believed in leadership for women,” she said. 

And despite the doubts she heard within about college and medical school being too expensive and out of reach, another voice clanged louder. 

“But I was encouraged by those voices that said, ‘Try regardless. And I kept trying.” 

Ige earned scholarships to attend the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where she earned a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and a Master of Science in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. She also obtained her Master’s in Public Health from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

She launched into a career in medicine and public health that has spanned nearly two decades. 

Dr. Ige served as the executive director of the United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries, where she, among other tasks, provided direction for over 300 United Methodist Hospitals and Clinics around the world.

Before she was appointed the CDPH Commissioner, Dr. Ige served as the Managing Director of Programs at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization dedicated solely to health. While there, she oversaw partnerships with health organizations nationwide. 

Fighting the Pandemic: Her Challenge and Fulfillment

However, Dr. Ige served in a transformative role that provided distinct lessons that further solidified her approach to collaboration and health equity. 

From 2020 to 23, she was the Assistant Commissioner for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, serving much of her tenure during the pandemic, the worst global health crisis of our times. 


According to Dr. Ige, the pandemic was “one of the most challenging and fulfilling things” she has ever done in her career. 

In February 2020, when the pandemic was really ramping up, initially, everyone was like, ‘It’s not going to be that bad,’” she recalled. 

But then the reports started coming out every day as COVID-related deaths spiked. Many of New York’s Black and Brown residents were dying. 

Establishing a coordinated public health response that included an infrastructure and vaccine response had to be executed. Success was the only mandate. 

Like the iron resolve she displayed in fulfilling her calling to become a doctor, Dr. Ige vowed that what COVID was doing to communities of color would not be the story. 

Dr. Ige mobilized resources and support through community-based partnerships and faith-based organizations, mainly focusing on public housing residents. This resulted in a significant increase in vaccination coverage.

Under her program, vaccination coverage for the hundreds of thousands living in New York City Public Housing at that time soared from 39% to 95%, exceeding the rest of the city.

It proved to her and everyone involved that “With the right engagement, with the right resources, and by putting people at the center, we can close some of these gaps. 

“The premature mortality, the illnesses, the deaths that we see in the Black communities, they are not inevitable.”

Why She Wanted the CDPH Commissioner Job

Dr. Ige found the CDPH Commissioner role compelling for three reasons, one of which was the city’s ethnic composition. 


“I was drawn to Chicago because this is one of the few cities in this country where I will not be a minority,” she said.


“This is a unique context. What would it be if we could make this experiment of a multicultural, multiethnic community work? So that was one of the things I was intrigued by, being in a context where the Black community is significant.”

In her view, the second reason is Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration’s commitment to social justice and health equity.

“Many times in my career, I have been in a position where I’m trying to convince people that these are important issues to pay attention to, that social justice is important, and that health equity is important.”

Dr. Ige also emphasized that the role presented an opportunity to truly address the root causes of health disparities, including environmental factors, living conditions and stress. 

“I felt it was a unique opportunity because usually we address one disease at a time, and it’s whack-a-mole. Kill COVID here, and then HIV pops up. Kill this there, and another thing pops up. What would it be like to look at the totality of all of those issues together and see if we can move the dial?” she said. 

Black people here die a lot earlier than Whites, especially from preventable diseases. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that the life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 77.5 years. 

For Black Chicagoans, the average life expectancy is less than 70 years old, reports the Chicago Urban League’s State of Black Chicago 2023 report

According to the city’s 2021 “The State of Health for Blacks In Chicago” data brief, the life expectancy for Blacks is actually more than nine years lower than that of non-Blacks.

Both reports also paint a stark picture of how treatable conditions and environmental factors continue to ravage the Black community. 

  • For instance, hypertension and obesity are twice as high in Black neighborhoods in Chicago versus everywhere else, states the CUL report.
  • “The State of Health for Blacks In Chicago” also reports that the diabetes death rate for Blacks is 70% higher than that of non-Black people in the city.
  • If you live in a Black neighborhood in Chicago, you are also more likely to be exposed to pollution and suffer from asthma. 
  • Furthermore, racial discrimination, oppression and generational community disinvestment have long served to influence these poorer health outcomes. 

These facts aren’t new. 

Her Vision

Yet, Dr. Ige’s plans include supporting communities by identifying service gaps, advocating for resources and engaging in thoughtful collaboration with other departments to address the social determinants of health – what the World Health Organization defines as “the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes” like employment, housing and food insecurity.

For her, Chicago presents an excellent opportunity to implement that vision of establishing health equity.    

“My job is to advocate very strongly for the communities that have been at the margins so that they can be put in the center.” 

“I keep using the word communities rather than disease,” Dr. Ige said, “because people are whole people. They’re not just cases. They’re not just diseases. They are whole human beings, and we want to support communities as human beings.”

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