Tom Ricketts

No challenge is too big for Tom Ricketts.

As one of UNC’s Morehead Scholars in 1966, he dove into student life, co-founding a rugby club in his freshman year and becoming captain and club president two years later. Eventually, he coached the team, played in England and Wales, and refereed matches across the southeast U.S.

At 50, he took up cycling. “I had this dream of riding in the Tour de France,” he says, “so, in 2002, I entered an amateur stage of it, l’Etape du Tour. I finished behind 4,000 riders – but ahead of 2,000 others!”

Ricketts, professor of health policy and management in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, rode in l’Etape three more times.

On one trip, he met people who wanted to develop a new master of public health program. They welcomed his ideas – and he has taught for three years at the French School of Advanced Studies in Public Health.

“My UNC colleagues have joined me to teach in Paris and Rennes,” Ricketts says. “Cycling has connected me to global public health and UNC to one of the preeminent educational institutions in Europe.”

In between the rugby and the tour, Ricketts established a renowned career in rural health. As a young journalist, he learned about groundbreaking work being done in North Carolina in the 1970s. “N.C. had the first Office of Rural Health and the first nurse practitioner-staffed clinics,” he says. “I was fascinated by the dedicated people who made these changes happen.”

As a graduate research assistant at UNC’s Health Services Research Center, he took part in a national evaluation of rural primary care programs. “Cecil Sheps and Gordon DeFriese led a talented team,” Ricketts says, “that included Ed Wagner, Dennis Gillings and Curt McLaughlin. I visited 10 states and 30 rural clinics as part of that project and got to know a lot about small towns and incredibly dedicated people.”

His current work focuses on the U.S. health workforce, where he finds a different set of challenges. “We’re going to have fewer doctors in the near future,” he says, “and we’re playing catch-up with demographic realities while facing a crunch for public dollars. Our health care situation requires creative thinking – we have to change how we train doctors and how we pay for it.”

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