This past year, I attended a conference of which I’m a co-founder, “Medical Innovation in a Post-COVID World,” filled with panels and fireside chats that covered an array of medtech industry topics. One panel at the event, with Camille Chang Gilmore, MBA, vice president, Human Resources and global chief diversity, equity, & inclusion officer at Boston Scientific; Christine Jackson, senior director, Health Economics, Policy & Reimbursement at Medtronic; and Chelsey Berstler, vice president, Affordability, Government Programs at UnitedHealth Group, illuminated the health inequities that exist in life sciences and spoke movingly about healthcare disparities. While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted health inequities, statistics indicate that minority groups have consistently been disadvantaged within the healthcare system. These numbers reveal numerous factors that all combine to decreased patient outcomes, and therefore, awareness of these disparities is essential to taking action to improve these outcomes as an industry.
The panel provided a thoughtful, informative discussion, leaving conference attendees, including me, with critical reminders about the prevalence of health inequities in the U.S. healthcare system, and tangible ways to address these inequities within their organizations to provide better experiences for patients, more accurate and unified patient representation, and ultimately, to achieve better patient and clinical trial outcomes.
Health Inequities at-a-Glance
When looking at healthcare provider representation and access to treatment, the statistics around the disadvantages of minority groups are staggering. And even more so, the impact of these gaps on patients needs to be examined because that understanding may drive change at an organization level, and over time, collectively at an industry level.
Here is a snapshot of the data:
- About 25% of Black adults and 30% of Hispanic adults say it is difficult to find healthcare at a location that is easy for them to get to, compared to 18% of White adults
- About two-thirds (65%) of Black adults and over half (54%) of Hispanic adults say it is very or somewhat difficult for them to find a doctor who shares their background and experiences, while most White adults (53%) say this is easy
- 20% of Black adults and 19% of Hispanic adults say they were personally treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity when getting healthcare for themselves or a family member in the past 12 months, while just 5% of White adults say this has happened to them
These statistics are just a few examples of the inequities that exist within the healthcare system, which can lead to unnecessary suffering and even loss of life. The themes extracted from this data include a lack of access, not feeling understood, and mistreatment. The severity of these impacts on patients and on the healthcare system makes it essential for all organizations operating in this field to delve into these data, educate their organizations and promote awareness, and establish initiatives in their organization to move conversations into action to drive change.
Small Steps Can Lead to Substantial Impacts
An important first step organizations can take to address health inequities is to establish the company’s commitment to the cause. This commitment is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather, there are options to consider. Here are a handful of examples that may lead to tangible results:
- Start from the top: Set the stage from the top level of executives to empower others to recognize the inequities, understand the impact, and participate in the mission. This commitment can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, one of which is an action pledge where CEOs can unite an organization by offering internal programs and making meaningful donations that benefit those who are disadvantaged by the healthcare system to bridge the gap between education and action
- Consider making diversity a core value: In doing so, diversity remains central to the company, its goals, and its employees when this begins a common fabric of the company. As a result, employees from all backgrounds will feel a greater sense of belonging if they can connect with the company’s values, feel more represented, and see their organization deliberately a part of the conversation on a consistent basis
- Identify a diversity strategy: Develop an internal diversity strategy by homing in on a plan, which will contain multiple internally facing components, such as educational tools and behavior assessments to identify gaps and help strengthen workplace inclusion. In parallel, organizations may benefit if they define a “blueprint” on employee behavior by identifying the ideal conduct and tactics that will enable the company to achieve its diversity goals. Once the blueprint is defined, leaders in that organization should reflect on the current internal behaviors to determine what changes are needed and what internal behaviors should be corrected (and overseen) to move toward that ideal state. Lastly, organizations should understand all the components that it will take to reach this expectation and put in place measures to evaluate progress.
While the overall goals are the same, programs to address health inequities will vary by organization. A panelist shared an example of their organization’s “close the gap” initiative and the context behind the mission to bring tangible examples to life, providing attendees with ideas of how they too can take part in the bigger mission. For example, a component in the organization’s initiative is the use of data specific to ZIP codes; data in particular ZIP codes are used to inform healthcare providers of the prevalence of diseases in those geographic regions, as well as the available opportunities for treatment, making those providers and the communities they serve feel seen and heard.
In summary, that organization’s initiative is committed to making sure everyone is allowed an equal opportunity to receive the quality healthcare they deserve, and simultaneously, this knowledge can be used to make better informed decisions on behalf of providers and patients.
The Path Forward
With these examples, organization leaders can use their influence to initiate change and establish small steps to enable big changes to achieve better patient representation and outcomes. These steps range from a CEO action pledge, building core values, designing employee behavior blueprints, and educational tools. As these organizations move forward in their journey toward equity, it’s important not to lose sight of their long-term mission even if some initiatives are met with hesitation and some results are slow to progress. As one of the panelists stated so eloquently “diversity is a given, inclusion is a choice, equity is a goal. Belonging is our ultimate end point.”