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Leadership

Healthcare Trailblazer Focuses on Supporting His Community

Feb. 22, 2021

Michael A. Thomas, MD, professor and chair in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, soon will celebrate one year as the first African American clinical chair at UC Health.


Michael Thomas, MD, began his college career as a radio/television/film major at Northwestern University. Attending classes alongside students like future actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Megan Mullally, his plan was to produce and direct high-profile live television programs like the Super Bowl or the Oscars.

Unbeknownst to his fellow film students, Dr. Thomas was a double major, also majoring in pre-med.

He decided to take science classes with the intention of applying for medical school, just to see if he could get into the program. Lo and behold, he was accepted not only into medical school, but also into UCLA’s Master of Fine Arts program in television production on the exact same day.

Ultimately, Dr. Thomas’ heart led him to medicine, attending medical school at the University of Illinois and completing residency training at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He came to Cincinnati as a fellow for additional training in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, uncertain whether he would stay.

Today, 32 years later and married to a native Cincinnatian, he knows that Cincinnati is his forever home. “I’ve been embraced by this community and want to offer that same embrace to the next generation of Cincinnati’s doctors,” Dr. Thomas shared.

Dr. Thomas feels privileged to provide much-needed, specialized healthcare to women in the region. He has also helped build the University of Cincinnati Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Program, which has welcomed more than 5,000 beautiful babies into the world.

“As a UC Health gynecologist/fertility specialist, my passion is to help people achieve their dream of building a family,” he said.

His other passion is to help ensure health equity for all of his friends and neighbors.

While he holds onto his UCLA acceptance letter (in case he ever decides to return to television), Dr. Thomas now holds another professional title that is enabling him to accomplish still more in the medical world.

In March 2020, UC Health named Dr. Thomas clinical chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, making him the first African American to hold the position in the history of the health system.

“The role of the chair in a clinical department is to direct and lead your department members in the four core aspects of our departmental mission: patient care, education, research and community service. “Though we primarily think of the first three,” shares Dr. Thomas, “Having a stronghold in the community has to be just as important as the others.”

O’dell Moreno Owens, MD, president and CEO of Interact for Health and InterAct for Change, established the In Vitro Fertilization Program at UC Medical Center and speaks highly of Dr. Thomas and his leadership. “Dr. Thomas is a great leader because he leads by example. He has the ability to bring other people into the conversation. Voices that normally would not be part of the conversation or were not respected in the past.” According to Dr. Owens, Dr. Thomas is admired by the top leaders in reproductive endocrinology because of his dedication.

A servant leader, Dr. Thomas expresses how lucky he is to be surrounded by other leaders in the department who work together to achieve the primary objective of offering the best medical care to the women and families in our community.

Being Present in an Underrepresented Community

As the son of a single mother and a women's health provider, Dr. Thomas feels strongly that the only way to ensure health equity in our community is to be present.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (OHPHP), although the term “disparities” is often interpreted to mean racial or ethnic disparities, many dimensions of disparity exist in the U.S., particularly in health. If a health outcome is seen to a greater or lesser extent between populations, there is disparity. Race or ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, age, disability, socioeconomic status and geographic location all contribute to an individual’s ability to achieve good health. It is important to recognize the impact that social determinants have on health outcomes of specific populations.

Closing the Health Gap

Upon arrival in Cincinnati, Dr. Thomas met Renee Mahaffey Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit community health grassroots organization committed to raising awareness about racial and health disparities and eliminating those disparities across Greater Cincinnati.

“Dr. Thomas has been a supporter of The Health Gap’s mission to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities through his advocacy for Black women’s health,” Harris shared. “I am blessed that our friendship has spanned decades and that we have his expertise in order to serve women and families in our region.”

In collaboration with The Health Gap, Dr. Thomas and his department faculty colleagues were recently given the opportunity to write monthly health articles to be published in

The Cincinnati Herald, an African American newspaper that provides important and useful women's health information. These articles will cover a variety of topics. “His dedication to researching and advocating for maternal health disparities, along with his willingness to share his expertise and address Black women’s health, are to be applauded,” said Harris.

Elizabeth Kelly, MD, vice chair in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and associate professor at the UC College of Medicine, also is involved in the community. She works with Cradle Cincinnati to reduce the death rate in babies of color in Avondale, Walnut Hills and Over-the-Rhine. Cradle Cincinnati is a collaborative effort between parents, caregivers, healthcare professionals and community members with a commitment to reduce infant mortality in our community. “Because of Cradle Cincinnati, infant mortality rates are coming down, but they are still as high as those in many third-world countries,” Dr. Thomas explained.

Through the department’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, a partnership with a virtual maternity care mobile application is coming to fruition in order to enhance support for diverse patient populations. This application will help break down barriers, offering a variety of resources and diverse perspectives and solutions that will be accessible to respond to the needs of each unique woman.

While Dr. Thomas and his fellow physicians support many community initiatives to support health equity, he admits that there is still a long way to go. He adds that being present is the first and most important step.

Listen. Diagnose. Educate.

“The provider, whether it's a physician, nurse practitioner or midwife, must be present when they are with each patient,” Dr. Thomas explained.

New studies have demonstrated that patients of color who are taken care of by providers of color have better long-term outcomes. “The thought is that these providers do a better job of listening in more depth to a patient’s primary health problem. The patient may feel more comfortable and therefore, be more forthcoming with secondary issues that may be contributing to the patient's overall health. Having more providers of color will go a long way to decrease the disparities we see in healthcare.”

Colleague and friend Alvin Crawford, MD, UC Health orthopaedic surgeon and professor emeritus in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, is the founding director of Black Men in Medicine Cincinnati (BMIMC). Dr. Crawford has had the pleasure of observing Dr. Thomas during his transition from a bright young fellow to an attending physician. “Dr. Thomas projects both ultimate confidence and humility in his leadership based on his significant infertility research and his overwhelming capacity and desire to treat all fellow humans well,” said Dr. Crawford. “He achieves this by treating all of his patients as though they are family or friends. I feel very confident that his entire staff will adopt, adapt and project these values as he continues to lead this historical journey at the UC College of Medicine.”

As defined by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, race and ethnicity are socially constructed categories that have tangible effects on the lives of individuals who are defined by how one perceives one's self and how one is perceived by others.

“Dr. Thomas is strongly interested in providing not only excellent medical care, but respect and dignity to a patient group not usually afforded it,” Dr. Crawford shared. “His performance in this area has been noted as exemplary and his expressed dedication to excellence in care, as well as respect to unrepresented, underserved patients of color, is so well-known.” Dr. Thomas has been especially active and resourceful in assisting families who are experiencing medical and financial difficulties as they strive to become parents.

Dr. Thomas recognizes the importance of being respectful to all patients, including those who may need to take many modes of transportation to travel to doctors’ offices. Taking the time to listen to each patient's stories is just as important. “Sitting down in the room with a patient for just 15-20 minutes has a stronger impact on that person and will help her better communicate her healthcare needs than by standing near the door, waiting to go to the next room. Listen. Diagnose. Educate.” 

Dr. Thomas serves as chair of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), which recently created a diversity, equity and inclusion task force. One of its goals is to recruit more physicians of color into the field. “I think that by increasing the number of physicians of color, we will have a better understanding of what African American women go through.” He believes this would be helpful to all patients.

“I feel very honored to be a healthcare trailblazer at the UC College of Medicine,” Dr. Thomas shared. “I stand on the shoulders of many other physicians of color who opened doors for me and many others.”