Ask a healthcare organization what its top priority is today, and many will say health equity. But when it comes to creating real change, lip service won’t cut it, one manager said.
“It’s virtue signaling,” SCAN Health Plan CEO Sachin Jain said in a recent interview. “It’s fashionable to say you care about this. After George Floyd’s murder, how many health care organizations said ‘We stand with Black Lives Matter?’ They said they were going to make major changes to their strategy. They said they were going to make big donations.”
While it’s important to show support in reducing health disparities, healthcare organizations need to establish clear and specific goals to really move the needle, Jain added.
“It’s humbling to see how many people now care about this issue,” he said. “But I also think that we have a culture in health care where we’ve told ourselves that change is harder than it really is, that it has to be slow, that it has to be incremental, that change has to be preceded by intensive dialogue and consensus building. I think that’s where we have a leadership gap. That’s where we’ve really overcomplicated some of these issues.
“I think more and more organizations just have to say, ‘We’re going to reduce the number of African-American children born with low birth weights. We’re going to lower readmission rates for populations where they’re higher.’”
Another executive echoed Jain in a recent interview.
“Health equity is a buzzword that everybody uses and a lot of people have chief health equity officers. But the real job is to look at the actual actions,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief health equity officer of CVS Health. “It’s not not so much how many programs you’ve launched. It’s actually how you factor that into your business decisions? Honestly, what are the incentives like for the people who work at your company? How are the incentives aligned with goals to reduce inequality? “
Both SCAN Health Plan and CVS Health have identified key areas they are looking to create change. Long Beach, Calif.-based SCAN targets cholesterol medication adherence in Hispanic members, diabetic control in Hispanic members and flu vaccination rates in black members, Jain said. For these goals the organization is binding managers’ compensation to their success in eliminating inequalities. The health plan also has a medical group for people experiencing homelessness, and it recently had a Medicare Advantage plan for LGBTQ+ members.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based CVS Health, meanwhile, is focusing on three key areas: women’s health, heart health and mental health, Khaldun said. While she said the retailer is still ironing out specific strategies, CVS Health recently announced its new initiative reduce suicide attempts among Aetna members by 15.7% in 2022, compared to 2019.
“We are still developing our strategies there,” Khaldun said. “But we’re thinking about how we can leverage, for example, our MinuteClinic, our digital footprint with our Medicare members? So we’re really looking at how we engage and how we actually see improved health outcomes and reduce disparities in those specific areas.”
The company has also made several investments in affordable housing, most recently in Bel Aire, Kansasand Seattle.
For Jain, one lesson he has learned in the fight against health disparities is that there is always more to do.
“You can almost never do enough in this space,” Jain said. “When you try to undo 350 years of social wrongs, you don’t do it by setting one goal with one target. That’s not how you do it. But I think you kind of have to tackle one issue at a time and start making progress, start changing the values of an organization.”
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