It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to envision Tonya Winders listed among the likes of Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, and Virginia Apgar. These pioneers of healthcare, these unconstrained advocates, these ushers of progress, have all championed a common cause; to protect those who are vulnerable. And in pursuit of this lofty goal, each has made a measurable advance in medicine and held above all else, the needs of patients.
From protecting classmates in the schoolyard to battling a rare form of cancer, Tonya was born a defender. Over the past two decades, she has devoted herself entirely to patient empowerment, working tirelessly to ensure access to quality care. Whether she is advocating for effective diagnostic and treatment tools, addressing medical professionals at international symposiums, or penning one of her 50 peer-reviewed articles, Tonya ensures that the patient’s voice is heard.
As CEO of Allergy & Asthma Network and, equally significant, the mother of five children, four of whom suffer from chronic disorders, Tonya is firmly entrenched in the allergy, asthma, respiratory, and immunology sectors and wholly dedicated to eradicating deaths and improving outcomes for patients with these illnesses.
We spoke with Tonya at great length and what we learned could fill a hundred captivating pages. Excluding even a single word of her journey, and the achievements therein, is to our dismay but we endeavored to present a substantive digest that at minimum, is reflective of her phenomenal story.
Tonya, you are engaged in quite a few organizations. Would you take us through them?
Yes. I am president and CEO of Allergy & Asthma Network, as well as president of Global Allergy & Airways Patient Platform. For each of these organizations, I execute the vision, mission, and values dictated by their boards of directors. In this charge, I am responsible for sustaining their respective strategic visions, membership development, program direction, patient advocacy, and education initiatives. I also serve as project manager for several of Allergy & Asthma Network’s programs including Not One More Life, which partners with faith-based cooperatives to reduce respiratory disease among African Americans, and The Trusted Messengers, which provides COVID testing/vaccinations, general health/respiratory and COVID screening, and health coaching to underserved communities.
That’s a lot of responsibility. What would you say is your motivation? What drives you to continue your efforts?
It’s the mission. Every day, I think about getting to that point of zero death, then try to move the needle forward inch by inch. By bringing awareness and education, and changing public policy, I want to improve the lives of the 800 million people living with asthma, allergies, COPD, and other respiratory illnesses. I also place tremendous value on the privilege of getting to know patients, their perspectives and stories, and then supporting them. I still take phone calls from our help line and engage to help them find solutions to their personal impediments.
What is the biggest barrier to care and medication, and how are you working to fix these issues?
The barriers are rooted in access to care. What we know is that lower socioeconomic and education levels often dictate the quality of care one receives. Through programs like Not One More Life, we provide resources—not just treatment or medication, but legal and housing help. We also host an annual Allergy Asthma Day where over 300 people meet with Congress to discuss the issues, policies, and barriers that families with allergies and asthma face. Through this effort, we’ve had critical federal and state laws passed. We’re currently working on The Safe Step Act, a bill that would limit an insurance company’s mandated prerequisite treatments and allow patients to obtain the best treatment from the outset.
Asthma alone costs our nation over $80 billion a year in direct/indirect costs. As of 1993, 6,000 people died each year from asthma.. That number is now down to 3,000. We are making headway through better treatments and phenotyping. The science has evolved greatly, and we now have biologics and more advanced treatments to address underlying immune issues and other comorbid conditions.
Your children suffer from respiratory conditions and you, yourself, have been a patient. How do your personal experiences affect your objective?
I think because I identify with the heart of the patient. So many times, guidelines focus solely on the doctors. There’s more to patient care than just addressing the symptoms or cause. You have to consider the whole person, all the puzzle pieces—physical, psychological, financial, relational—all these factors impact health and outcomes. I never lose sight of what matters most to the patient. We have medical journals with all the science, but they don’t elucidate on the intimate observations of the individual. In the last five years, I have authored and co-authored over 50 papers in an effort to convey that perspective and now, for the first time, medical literature in the space of allergy, asthma, and COPD, is fully embracing patient views. Also, through the organizations I work with, we’re training doctors to respect patients more and to ask the right questions and helping patients to be more informed and proactive.
Tonya, no one likes to brag about their awards, but yours are so inspiring. Would you please share the ones that meant most to you?
My work is so fulfilling to me. The formal acknowledgment isn’t why I do what I do, but at the same time, it is nice to have my contributions recognized. It confirms that I’m making a difference and that has always been my goal. In 2021, I was awarded CEO of the Year. In that same year, Global Insights Healthcare Nonprofit of the Year was awarded to Allergy & Asthma Network. I also received the Distinguished Service Award from the American College of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology, a distinction that usually goes to a doctor, and for the first time, in 2018, it was award to a patient; me.
Prior to leading nonprofit organizations, Tonya spent 15 years in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. She holds a Master of Business Administration degree and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in global public health.
Tonya Winders, CEO and President, Allergy and Asthma Network