CHAPEL HILL—Dr. Thomas G. Irons, Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences and professor of pediatrics at East Carolina University, received the Award for Excellence in Public Service today from the Board of Governors of the 17-campus University of North Carolina. The award, announced on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro during the Board’s regular October meeting, was established in 2007 to encourage, identify, recognize, and reward distinguished public service and outreach by faculty across the University. The 2011 award carries a $7,500 cash prize and was presented by UNC President Tom Ross and Public Service Award Committee Vice Chairman Phil Dixon of Greenville.
A member of ECU’s medical faculty for the past three decades, Irons has devoted his professional career to providing clinical care to underserved children and working to improve access to quality health care for the people of eastern North Carolina. As a physician, faculty member, and private citizen, he has focused his time, his vast medical expertise, and his consensus-building skills on helping to address the needs of abused children, disabled children, at-risk teens, farm families, and the rural uninsured.
A Greenville native and the son of primary-care physicians, Irons is a graduate of Davidson College and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine. From 1975 to 1978, he served in the U.S. Army in West Germany, where he developed a child abuse prevention and management program that involved clergy, social services, and military police. Upon his return to the U.S., he practiced pediatrics in Raleigh before joining the medical faculty at ECU in 1981, where he became heavily involved in child abuse prevention efforts and secured grants to launch programs to better address the medical needs of severely disabled children, adolescents, and other at-risk groups. Believing that he could more effectively serve the community in an administrative role, in 1989 he accepted the position of Associate Dean of the School of Medicine and was soon promoted to Senior Associate Dean. He was named Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences in 1995. In these roles, he also worked to grow and retain the base of primary care physicians in underserved communities across the region.
In 1999, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, Irons took responsibility for coordinating health services at all Pitt County emergency shelters, where he saw the plight of the region’s low-income residents in a whole new light. Determined to address not only their immediate medical concerns, but also the underlying health care disparities existing across eastern North Carolina, he convened a group of state, regional, and local health leaders and spearheaded the creation of HealthAssist, a health improvement and health care program for low-income and uninsured residents of eastern North Carolina. Those efforts were later expanded to encompass other collaborative efforts including Access East and the Eastern Carolina Community Health Consortium. Irons later championed the planning, fund-raising, and construction for the James D. Bernstein Community Health Center, which provides medical services, behavioral health services, dental care, pharmacy services, and a full range of basic skills education programs. While carrying a significant teaching and patient care load, Irons currently serves as medical director of the Bernstein Center, HealthAssist, and the NC Agromedicine Institute, a collaboration among ECU, NC State University, and NC A&T State University. In addition to chairing the boards of Access East, the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center, and the Eastern Carolina Community Health Consortium, he also serves on the boards of the NC Care Share Alliance, the NC Foundation for Advanced Healthcare Programs, the NC Medical Society Foundation, and the NC Community Practitioner Program.
Irons’s extraordinary compassion, teaching ability, and commitment to his patients and the community have earned him numerous awards and recognitions, including the Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award from the East Carolina Council Boy Scouts of America, the Champions of Change in Medicine Award from the NC Institute of Medicine, the Alumni Merit Award and the Medical Alumni Distinguished Service Award from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and the Dean’s Choice Award and Legacy of Leadership Award from the ECU College of Human Ecology. He is also a four-time winner of the Clinical Science Faculty Award presented by graduating students at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, and the medical Class of 2006 created the annual Thomas G. Irons Award in Medical Professionalism in his honor.