December 20, 2023

Delton Atkinson

Delton Atkinson

Delton Atkinson, MPH ’76/’79 (health policy and management and biostatistics), has received the Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award for overall achievement.

One of four recipients for 2023, Atkinson received the award during homecoming weekend at the Light on the Hill Scholarship Gala.

This honor recognizes his long career dedicated to providing the foundational information to ensure people across North Carolina and the United States can benefit from data-informed decisions related to health. He conducted groundbreaking work that highlighted racial/ethnic health disparities affecting North Carolina residents and brought this important issue to the attention of public health leaders and health care providers. This work was an impetus for the establishment of the North Carolina Minority Health Advisory Council, which advises the N.C. governor and Department of Health and Human Services with the aim of reducing health (and health care) disparities among racial/ethnic minorities and underserved populations, through health equity and advocacy.

“Whether working in state or federal government or with the School of Public Health, my public health journey has been more than a career – it has been a ‘life calling,’ ” said Atkinson. “I grew under the belief that you must be committed to something bigger than self.”

Atkinson came to public health after a chance encounter with the late William (Bill) Small — fellow Beech Award winner, former faculty member and champion of equity in public health education — who recruited him to the UNC School of Public Health (now the Gillings School of Global Public Health).

An affinity for data, and its importance in improving health outcomes and equity, led him to a career as a statistician for, and later director of, the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. He was recruited to the National Center for Health Statistics in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where he worked to improve the collection and dissemination of national data related to civil registration and vital statistics, a basic building block of public health research and practice.

“When I think about pioneering efforts to bring attention to health disparities, backed by indisputable data, Delton Atkinson is the first person that comes to mind,” said M. Anita P. Holmes, JD, MPH ’72 (health behavior), co-founder of the Minority Student Caucus. “Delton brought data to life and enabled others to relate it to decisions of the day.  I will never forget seeing for the first time his publication on the health of minorities in North Carolina (Atkinson, D. ‘The Health of Minorities in North Carolina,’ SCHS Studies. North 43. NC Department of Health and Human Services. March 1997). It quickly became a ‘white paper’ on health disparities and provided relevant policy implications to make North Carolina a healthier place to live.”

In addition to building and optimizing systems to collect meaningful data on a growing range of issues related to health, he has championed and helped create processes to make de-identified data available, and in a more timely fashion, to a wide range of researchers and policymakers. These systems have enabled partners at research and academic organizations to collaborate and thereby increased the usefulness of basic health data to generate insights that benefit all. For his work, he received numerous state, federal and national awards for statistics and leadership, including the 2019 Halbert L. Dunn Award, presented by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems.

Atkinson earned two Master of Public Health degrees at the Gillings School, one in health policy and administration and a second in biostatistics. As a student, he participated in the Minority Student Caucus and helped plan the Annual Minority Health Conference, in which he has subsequently been a regular presenter. He has continued to give back to and stay involved in the Gillings School in multiple ways, including serving as an adjunct professor, serving in leadership positions on several of the School’s volunteer boards, and chairing the Public Health Foundation Board of Directors and the Alumni Association Advisory Board.

“Delton has always been very generous with his time and talent, whether in a board room or one or one, from his years as a student participating in the Minority Health Caucus continuing to his present service to Gillings School of Global Public Health and the broader UNC and global community,” said Holmes. “He is a humanitarian with a humble and kind spirit, well respected for his work and integrity.”

In 2010, Atkinson and his wife Sherry created the Atkinson Scholarship to support public health students, in part, as a way to pay forward the scholarship support he received for all three of his Carolina degrees. Now retired, Atkinson currently serves on the board of the North Carolina Community Care Network and on two subcommittees of the Community Care of North Carolina board.

The Light on the Hill Scholarship Gala is hosted annually by the Black Alumni Reunion, an affinity group within UNC’s General Alumni Association. Its purpose is to raise funds for the Light on the Hill Society Scholarship program, established in honor of Harvey Beech, Carolina’s first Black graduate, and other pioneers of the 1950s and 60s. This program provides scholarships to Black graduate and first-year undergraduate students who demonstrate academic excellence, outstanding leadership abilities, community service dedication and have great potential to become involved and informed alumni.

“It’s wonderful to see this recognition for Delton, who has contributed so much to public health as well as to the School and our students,” said Victor J. Schoenbach, professor emeritus of epidemiology and longtime advisor of the Minority Student Caucus. “Especially to those of us with an eye on the data, Delton has been the face of North Carolina public health for decades, and we always looked forward to his presentations at the annual Minority Health Conference.”

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