Policy expert finds answers to large health problems come from diverse teams

Darryl Crompton first thought of becoming a dentist, but chose public health policy as a career in order to contribute to social change. His ultimate goal is to see universal access to health care.
Darryl Crompton first thought of becoming a dentist, but chose public health policy as a career in order to contribute to social change. His ultimate goal is to see universal access to health care.
Tom Radcliffe

In the 30 years that Darryl E. Crompton, J.D., M.P.H. ’76, has worked as a public health lawyer, nothing prepared him for the moment he held a 4-month-old South African girl dying of AIDS. As she wheezed and shivered in his arms, all he could think about was how governments, nonprofit organizations and religious groups had failed her and the nearly 1 million other AIDS orphans in Africa.

“This was the first time I had held someone who was dying,” Crompton said. “It made me more sensitive and committed to make a contribution to social change related to AIDS and poverty.”

Crompton spent a month in South Africa in 2005 as a consultant for the humanitarian organization CHF International. His assignment was to determine how well the country’s social infrastructure supports AIDS orphans, some of whom have AIDS themselves.

South Africa was one of many stops on a professional journey dedicated to improving the health of the poor and uninsured, especially children. Crompton, who received his law degree from the University of California, Davis, and his master’s degree in public health from Yale, has taught health law, policy and bioethics at the University of Alabama; trained Siberian physicians in health care policy; and studied pediatric patients’ rights in Scotland, England and Denmark. He is now director of the Institute for International Public Policy of the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation in Washington, D.C. He is also a lawyer and policy, management and organization development consultant in Washington.

Crompton became sensitized to the plight of the poor as a boy. His parents wanted their children to have a multicultural education, so when Crompton was 11, the family left their home in Los Angeles to spend a year in Morocco. “I saw other 11-year-old children who had dropped out of school and were working in various and sundry jobs,” he said. “People were living in mud huts with no running water.”

Crompton’s father worked as an architect, a profession that provided the family with opportunities for international travel. Their next move was to Copenhagen, where Crompton experienced socialized medicine for the first time. When he or members of his family got sick, they received high-quality health care—for free.

Growing up in the political crucible of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Crompton knew he wanted to contribute to social change. He considered becoming a dentist because of his interest in science, but instead chose a career in public health and health policy. “When I looked at how I could make a contribution to social change in health, it wasn’t through the practice of medicine, one patient at a time, but through public policy,” he said.

After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, he decided to study law. As a law student Crompton took courses in public health. Those classes, combined with an internship in the Washington office of U.S. Rep. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, a Democrat from Los Angeles, convinced him to work for an M.P.H. as well.

At Yale, Crompton was pleasantly surprised by the varied backgrounds of his classmates. “We had teachers, musicians, nuns, priests, mathematicians, people with philosophy backgrounds. It was very exciting for me.”

In fact, that multifaceted learning environment informs his approach to public health to this day. “I don’t have a magic bullet, but I know the only way you can achieve transformational change is through interdisciplinary teams of people.” He notes that if a patient with HIV or AIDS is homeless or can’t afford food, antiretroviral drugs alone aren’t going to offer much help.

Crompton saw the complexity of health issues when he was hired in 1988 by the Florida commissioner of education to evaluate drug prevention programs for adolescents. “There are lots of drug and alcohol prevention models, but basically very few are effective,” he said. “It’s an example of the interconnection between public health care and a whole range of broader social, political and cultural issues.”

Crompton is also interested in diversity of another sort. There should be more diversity and minority representation in health care, he says. He would like medical and public health schools, such as Yale’s, to identify, nurture and support talented minority middle and high school students to prepare them for careers in public health.

It’s all part of his lifelong goal of providing universal access to health care. “I don’t see a lot of caring in the health care system,” he said. “How can we improve the caring part of health care?”

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