Rebecca Onie

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Rebecca Onie
Alma materHarvard College, Harvard Law School
AwardsMacArthur Fellowship
Scientific career
InstitutionsThe Health Initiative[1]

Rebecca Onie (born 1977) is the co-founder with Rocco J Perla of The Health Initiative[2], a nationwide effort to spur a new conversation about - and new investments in - health. In 2017, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine as a nationally recognized leader in the intersection of social determinants, population health, and healthcare delivery. Onie is also the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Emerita of Health Leads.[3]


As a college student, Onie worked at Greater Boston Legal Services Housing Unit, where she noticed that many families facing unsafe housing or evictions also had underlying health challenges.[4] These health challenges could never be fully addressed unless people's essential needs (such as food, housing, and heat) were also addressed. As she recounts in a 2018 TED talk: “I spent months asking doctors at a chaotic hospital in Boston: what’s the one thing your patients most need to be healthy?[5] They shared the same story again and again – one I’ve heard hundreds of variations of since. They’d say: ‘Every day, I see an asthmatic patient and prescribe controller medication, but I know she’s living in a mold-infested apartment. Or I see a kid with an ear infection and I prescribe antibiotics, but there’s no food at home. And I don’t ask about those issues because there is nothing I can do.’ It seemed it shouldn’t be so complicated to design a doctor’s visit around what people actually need to be healthy.” In 1996, during her sophomore year at Harvard College, Rebecca Onie founded Health Leads (formerly Project HEALTH) with Dr. Barry Zuckerman, former Chair of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. After attending Harvard Law School, where she served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review, Onie clerked for the Honorable Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. During this time, Onie served as founding Co-Chair of Health Leads' Board of Directors. She returned to Health Leads as CEO in February 2006. In this role, Onie helped the Boston-based nonprofit expand nationally, enabling thousands of doctors and other caregivers to ask their patients “what do you need to be healthy?”– and then “prescribe” them those things: fruit and vegetables; heat in the winter; electricity, transportation, childcare. Health Leads then navigated patients to these resources in their communities. In 2009, Onie received a MacArthur Fellowship, for "individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." The award cited Onie’s work with Health Leads, “providing health care professionals with effective tools for alleviating the socioeconomic barriers that limit access to health care for low-income families, thereby expanding the scope of what health care truly entails.”[6] In April 2012, Rebecca Onie delivered a TEDMED talk[7], "Can We Rewrite the DNA of the Healthcare System?" where she asked, "If we know what we need to do to have a healthcare system, rather than a sickcare system - why don't we do it?" A 2018 New York Times profile of Onie quotes Gail Boudreaux, chief executive of Anthem, one of the nation’s largest health insurers saying that, “she had long been impressed with Ms. Onie’s big-picture perspective, her ability to bring people together and her understanding that success came only with scale. “She’s probably one of the most passionate people about this issue that I’ve ever met,” Ms. Boudreaux said.[8] In early 2018, Onie and Perla together launched The Health Initiative, on the following premise: “Our country is deeply divided on healthcare. But what if we are, or could be, unified on health? From decades of work with patients, healthcare providers, insurers, medical societies, state and federal policymakers, and community-based organizations, as well as recent public opinion research with voters across the country, it is clear: Based on our common sense and common experience, we collectively agree on what it means to be healthy and what drives good health.

This moment presents a critical opportunity to improve the health of people and communities in our country by investing in the known drivers of health, such as safe housing, healthy food, and jobs that enable self-sufficiency. By building a powerful constituency for health, we can together unlock these investments and achieve this shared vision in our communities.”

Onie was named to Oprah Winfrey's 2010 O Power List of women who are “changing the world for the better.” According to O: The Oprah Magazine, Onie and Health Leads “blew us away” by understanding “the power of the big picture.” On July 28, 2011, The New York Times ran a commentary about Health Leads, written by David Bornstein (author), which referred to Health Leads as "one of the most impressive organizations in the country" at addressing the conditions that make people sick.


● 2017 National Academy of Medicine Membership[9] ● 2015 American Public Health Association Avedis Donabedian Quality Award ● 2015 Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellowship[10] ● 2014 Innovators in Health Award: Network for Excellence in Health Innovation[11] ● 2013 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award[12] ● 2012 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award[13] ● 2012 Boston Business Journal's 40 under 40[14] ● 2012 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Young Leader Award[15] ● 2011 Forbes magazine's list of top social entrepreneurs in the world[16] ● 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship[17] ● 2009 MacArthur Fellows Program[18] ● 2009 John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award[19] ● 2008 U.S. Ashoka Fellow[20]


"Integrating Social Needs into Health Care: A Twenty-Year Case Study of Adaptation and Diffusion," by Rebecca Onie, Rocco Perla, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Thomas H. Lee and James S. Marks.[21]

"Population Health: The Ghost Aim," by Rocco Perla, Rebecca Onie and Thomas Lee, MD, MSc[22]

"Accountable health communities and expanding our definition of health care." Perla, R, Onie R. Health Affairs Blog, March 2, 2016.[23]

"Realigning Health with Care" by Rebecca Onie, Paul Farmer and Heidi Behforouz, Stanford Social Innovation Review Summer 2012[24]


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