Nancy Johnson

2021 Greater Tucson Leadership Tucson Woman of the Year

By Mary Minor Davis

It was an important day for Nancy Johnson. Contexture, the umbrella organization for Arizona and Colorado’s health information exchanges, was holding its first joint board meeting with its new partner. 

“(Contexture) CEO Melissa Kotrys started the meeting with, ‘We have a surprise to open our board meeting today. Nancy, can you come up here?’ I was caught by surprise and slightly worried since half of our new board were from Colorado and this was our first meeting,” recalled Johnson, El Rio Health’s CEO.

Moments later, she looked at the teleconferencing screen and found her colleagues, her husband Lane, and staff from Greater Tucson Leadership on a Zoom call to announce she had been named GTL’s Woman of the Year.

“It was such a humbling and emotional honor,” she said.

GTL recognizes a Woman of the Year who has contributed significant time, energy and spirit in fields outside her professional life, without regard to personal gain. This person has made significant community contributions that promote quality of life for all residents, has demonstrated excellence in leadership and is a positive inspiration for others.

“Despite her stature as the CEO of one of the largest medical providers in Pima County, Dr. Johnson has never lost touch with her roots as a nurse: kind, caring, compassionate, approachable, and a champion of helping lift people up, especially when they are in need,” noted Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert. “It’s no surprise that under her guidance, El Rio Health has been recognized and lauded for its commitment to equity and providing care to the entire community, including the most vulnerable populations.”

Johnson began her career as a nurse in Illinois and has served as a clinician, university faculty member and administrator. She joined El Rio as COO in 2009 and was named CEO in 2015. She now manages one of the region’s largest healthcare systems and the nation’s 20th largest federally qualified health center. She also is an adjunct nursing professor at the University of Arizona and serves on the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Pima Community College Foundation, Arizona Alliance for Community Health and Arizona Complete Health.

“Nancy is a genuine leader whose authentic style improves the effectiveness of everyone she encounters,” wrote SALC President and CEO Ted Maxwell. “At her core she is a nurse, and her caring manner connects with all whom she engages.”  

During the pandemic, Maxwell said, El Rio has “proven a key partner with SALC, providing expert guidance on COVID protocols and practices in the workplace.”

El Rio also played a key role in providing education and resources for residents, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Medical Director Francisco Garcia in their nomination.

“During the last 18 months, Nancy has worked collaboratively with our Health Department, healthcare, hospital and community leaders as an essential partner in our Pima County’s pandemic response,” he wrote. “El Rio has been agile and responsive to the complex needs of our most vulnerable communities during this health crisis.” 

For Johnson, who comes from a family of healthcare professionals and is married to a physician, healthcare is a way of life that continues to provide opportunities.

“As I reflect on working in healthcare for so many years, I still see ways to help make things stronger and innovate daily,” she said. “I like to create and engage others, and Tucson has always been such an amazing community of colleagues. When you ask, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Shall we try this?,’ they say yes. As a community, we build such strong collaborative partnerships with each other.”

She has also been a leader in workforce development, teaching nursing, medical and public health students. 

“By teaching and mentoring future healthcare professionals, Nancy sparks the passion of innovative care management for high-risk populations and those with chronic diseases,” wrote TMC Healthcare President and CEO Judy Rich and Julia Strange, TMC VP for community benefit. “Her life’s work to design, develop and implement healthcare systems and services has had a major impact on an uncountable number of individuals living in Southern Arizona.”

Johnson said she hopes her legacy will be that the integrated care systems and health centers that El Rio implements will optimize community health. 

“The words around ‘legacy’ match with El Rio’s key priorities: growth, sustainability, workforce development and community partnerships,” Johnson said. “I’m so appreciative of the many opportunities I’ve had to collaborate, improve the healthcare system and build relationships with my colleagues and partners.”

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