Addressing the social and racial barriers to health care equity

Whether it be the maternal health crisis that disproportionately impacts Black women, or the steeper decline in life expectancy and higher uninsured rates among the Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native populations, health inequities—as made especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic—are profound in the U.S.

What’s the best way to tackle them?

Providing culturally competent care—or care that respects diversity in the patient population and cultural factors that affect health—is a good place to start, said Vanessa Broadhurst, executive vice president for global corporate affairs at Johnson & Johnson, while speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Tuesday.

“When we look at the data on women of color, and maternal mortality rates and mortality rate, we know that women who receive culturally competent care, and care from providers who look like them—[it] decreases that mortality rate by 50%,” she explained.

The Susan G. Komen foundation, a breast cancer organization, has also found success by trying to better serve underrepresented patient groups, said CEO Paula Schneider. Her organization developed free training for Black patient navigators that can support Black breast cancer patients in their health care experience—and specifically in navigating the racism and bias they encounter. Schneider noted Komen has since trained more than 2,000 Black patient navigators, each of whom assists about 150 patients a year.

“It does become really big and impactful,” Schneider said of the program. “Not only does it help patients, it helps the women who are doing the training,” who now have a training certificate that helps them get better jobs.

Kellie McElhaney, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as founding director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, stressed the importance of fostering empathy among health care workers and noted the vast opportunity to do so. She cited research from empathy scientists at Berkeley, who found that white and Black patients are treated differently: With white patients, white doctors tend to walk to the patient’s bedside and touch them, while with Black patients, they’d stand near the door and not create any feeling of physical proximity, said McElhaney.

“Touch promotes feelings of healing,” she added.

Beyond developing empathy, Broadhurst said, physicians need to understand the unconscious biases in the health system, and develop the skills to identify and overcome them. Just as important, she noted: “Make sure that we continue to educate and produce Black and brown health care workers to treat patients.”

Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, added that supporting historically Black and Latino medical schools is key to building the nation’s capacity for providing culturally competent care.

Patients have the opportunity to help tackle inequities in the system, too, noted Asahi Pompey, global head of corporate engagement at Goldman Sachs and president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. Goldman has been investing in organizations with apps where patients can share information about where they received care and how they were treated by the hospital in their childbirth or other patient experiences. That benefits other women, explained Pompey, but it also helps hospitals and their boards understand what is happening on the ground and improve.

“There’s so much power right there on the ground with patients, and there haven’t been tools and networks to really tackle that and pull it together in a way that it really packs a punch,” said Pompey.

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