Meet the Expert: Kathleen Thomas

Dr. Thomas is working to improve access to and quality of mental health services

Story and photo by Ryan McDaniel | Published June 27, 2023

Kathleen Thomas headshot

The warm smile on the face of Kathleen Thomas, PhD, MPH, is the first indication of the empathy she brings to her work. Though so much of her day-to-day involves working with data sets, Kathleen always keeps the people behind the numbers at the forefront of her mind. A behavioral economist and mental health services researcher, Kathleen’s work focuses on patient advocacy interventions, health insurance policy, and disparities in access to care. Through these three focus areas, she aims to improve the access to and the quality of mental health services.

Now an Associate Professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy (DPOP), Kathleen started down her current path of study nearly three decades ago. At that time, she was a post-doc at UC Berkeley and found herself collaborating with Lonnie Snowden, PhD, Professor of Health Policy and Management. “I was fortunate enough to work with Kathleen, who brought very sophisticated economic analysis and methodological rigor to bear–and whose warmth and humanity were equally impressive,” Lonnie recalls. “Interdisciplinary collaboration is sometimes challenging but ours was a delight.”

Their research into mental health services and racial disparities was some of the earliest to view these disparities through a lens of organization and economics. Kathleen helped to establish this key perspective as essential for understanding disparities in health-care access. Lonnie incorporated it into his work on the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health and the Supplement on Race, Culture, and Ethnicity. Kathleen has expanded the work ever since. “Kathleen’s impressive accomplishments have contributed to understanding of services for autism, substance abuse, mental health workforce, and other areas,” Lonnie explains.

In 2000, Kathleen came to Chapel Hill to work at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC. There, her work brought her even closer to the populations she sought to help. “I got a thorough grounding there in patient and stakeholder engaged work with interdisciplinary teams using all different kinds of data,” she recalls.

In 2018, the School’s DPOP division was expanding. Betsy Sleath, PhD, who was the division chair at the time, had worked with Kathleen at the Sheps center and invited her to apply for a position in the division. “Whenever I’ve studied the value of health insurance and benefit structure, I always consider medication costs. When I work on interventions to build advocacy skills, we always talk about how conversations can include asking questions and providing feedback about medication-taking,” says Kathleen. “Medication is a central theme in my work and seemed like a good fit for the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.”

Kathleen has been with the School since then, pursuing means to better create equity in mental health care access and quality. When asked about outcomes of her research, she responds with ‘hope’ as the central theme: “I hope that parents have the confidence and skills to be effective advocates for their children as they choose mental health service providers and treatments . . . I hope that policymakers see the value of health insurance reforms that help people get the mental health services they need . . . I hope that we can understand the structural foundations of mental health disparities to develop strategies to reduce those disparities.”