Published November 19, 2013
Volume 21, Number 11

Axis Community Health CEO Sue Compton: Serving the Underserved

As CEO of Axis Community Health, Sue Compton is responsible for an organization whose 150 employees serve 14,000 patients on six sites with an annual budget of $13 million. It is not something she ever imagined herself doing. “That wasn’t a traditional expectation for girls growing up in the 60’s,” she says.It is, however, the logical outcome of a long career in health care and a passion to serve the underserved.

Axis is “the only provider of medical care for low-income and uninsured residents of the Tri-Valley,” a constituency to which Compton has been committed since her first job out of college. After earning a B.S. in nursing from Duke University, she took a position in rural public health in Beaufort, South Carolina. There she had her first exposure to poverty and its relation to health care.

“I saw families living in wooden shacks with dirt floors—many without electricity or plumbing,” she relates.It was common for youngsters to leave school after 6th or 7th grade to work in the fields or on fishing boats to support their families. “These were strong and resilient people who could roll with anything life threw at them. They were also the first to step up and help someone who needed help more than they did. Those amazing people changed my career path.”
Courtesy of Axis Community Health

Five years later, Compton became acquainted with another sector of the underserved community, working in inner-city healthcare when her husband’s job transfer took the couple to Milwaukee. “One of the good things about being a nurse is that you can find job opportunities almost anywhere you move,” she comments.

Another transfer landed them in Northern California in 1980, at the dawn of the technology boom in Silicon Valley. Coming from the Midwest, she encountered a huge culture shock.

“I came here kicking and screaming,” she recalls with a laugh. A major earthquake during that first year did little to engender confidence in her adopted home. What won her over? “No one ever complained about the climate,” quips the native of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gradually she discovered the appeal of the new environment. “The West Coast is very forward thinking, and the pace of life moves a little faster. I love that.”

After stints in the private sector and at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Compton joined Axis’ predecessor Valley Community Health Center, overseeing women’s health services. At the time the organization was “fairly small”--approximately 30 employees at two sites--but it soon became clear that a robust growth trajectory lay ahead.

To prepare for managing that future, Compton completed a masters in health system leadership at the University of San Francisco. Sensing that she could have an even greater impact, she switched over to the administrative side of the business.

“I loved working on the front lines, but I was also ready for new challenges where I could perhaps influence things even more—bringing in more grant money, expanding programs. Administration is much more than paperwork. It is being able to go out and make more of a difference for the people we serve.”

Staying with the nonprofit Valley organization gave Compton the opportunity to apply her newly acquired knowledge in a variety of areas. “I think you can fly a little further in a smaller organization.” As the health center morphed into Axis Community Health, she has enjoyed several “great opportunities”to translate her skills into action.

Appointed Axis CEO in 2007, Compton continues to lead the organization through a constantly changing landscape. These days she has several major projects on her plate.

Implementation of the Affordable Care Act is underway with help from a $155,690 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The funding enables Axis to hire more outreach workers to provide enrollment assistance and information about the health coverage options made available by the new legislation.

In September, Axis received accreditation as a Patient Centered Medical Home, or PCMH, “a great honor and distinction.” The designation signifies that the organization has implemented a care model that looks at the whole patient, treating not just isolated illnesses but the full spectrum of a person’s health.

“My public health background truly illustrated the importance of caring for the whole person,” Compton remarks. “Socio-economic factors have an enormous impact on health, as do mental health issues, family issues, and everything else we all deal with in our lives.  The medical home model puts all of these pieces together and allows us, as healthcare providers, to work in harmony with our patients toward optimal health on all fronts.”

To support that holistic approach, in December 2011 Axis purchased a 24,000-square-foot facility at 5925 W. Las Positas Blvd., in Hacienda, to bring multiple services under one roof. In the short term, the new location has been serving as the home base for Compton and a dozen administrative staff. Starting next summer, construction will transform the warehouse-like space into a welcoming, comfortable, light-filled medical facility, consolidating several other clinic sites.

With the design, by the San Francisco architecture firm INDE, nearly finished, Compton is intensely involved in behind-the-scenes work to secure financing for the project. Funding will come from state-issued bonds, along with a capital campaign targeting local stake holding communities.

Compton and her husband, a Silicon Valley recruiter, have two adult sons. The older one has a career in finance in Chicago, while the younger one, still living at home, is completing a degree in engineering.

It might be an oxymoron to say her favorite leisure time activity is running, but it typifies her always-in-motion approach to life. “My mother said from the age of three I never sat still, so I haven’t changed much,” she comments. While she does not feel the need for speed—“I’m a very slow runner”—she is very proud of having completed four marathons over the past few years, most recently in Los Angeles this spring. “As you get older, it’s even more of an accomplishment. I try to run three or four times a week. It’s important to keep moving!” 

Occasionally that movement takes her farther afield. Compton enjoys periodic business travel, attending state and national conferences and training sessions. The most recent excursion on her own time was a trip to Iceland, long on her bucket list. She and her younger son went for a week at the end of March, when it was “cold but not deathly so.” They loved the people, scenery, and terrain--riding snowmobiles on a glacier, plunging their hands in thermal springs, dipping their feet in the Arctic Ocean. “It was fabulous, such a different world. We had a week of cool, total fun.”

Still, it was good to get back to work. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been at Axis for so much of my career because I have been able to grow as the organization has grown,” Compton reflects. “There’s been a lot of learning on the spot and at times it’s been a wild ride, but playing a role in improving the health of so many Tri-Valley residents is the best possible job to have.”


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