Declarations Aren’t Enough. Health Equity Needs Action, Healthcare Execs Say

Ask a healthcare organization what its top priority is today, and many will say health equity. But when it comes to creating real change, paying lip service won’t cut it, one executive said.

“It’s virtue signaling,” said SCAN Health Plan CEO Sachin Jain in a recent interview. “It’s fashionable to say you care about this. After George Floyd’s murder, how many healthcare 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 major donations.”

While it’s important to show support in reducing health disparities, healthcare organizations need to establish clear and specific goals in order to actually 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 healthcare where we have told ourselves that change is harder than it actually is, that it needs to be slow, that it needs to be incremental, that change needs to be preceded with intensive dialogue and consensus making. I think that’s where we have a leadership gap. That’s where we have really over-complicated some of these issues. 

“I think more and more organizations need to just say, ‘We’re going to reduce the number of African American children who are born with low birth weights. We’re going to lower readmission rates for populations where it’s higher.’” 

Another executive echoed Jain in a recent interview.

“Health equity is a buzzword everyone is using and a whole bunch of folks have chief health equity officers. But the real work is looking at the actual actions,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief health equity officer of CVS Health. “It’s not so much how many programs you have launched. It’s actually, how are you embedding this into your business decisions? How are, quite frankly, the incentives for the people who work at your company? How are the incentives aligned to disparity reduction goals?”

Both SCAN Health Plan and CVS Health have identified key areas they are looking to create change. Long Beach, California-based SCAN is targeting medication adherence for cholesterol medications in Hispanic members, diabetic control in Hispanic members and flu vaccination rates in Black members, Jain said. For these goals, the organization is tying executives’ compensation to their success in eliminating disparities. The health plan also has a medical group for people experiencing homelessness, and it recently launched 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 that its new initiative reduced suicide attempts among Aetna members by 15.7% in 2022, compared to 2019. 

“We’re still developing our strategies there,” Khaldun said. “But we’re thinking about, how do we leverage, for example, our MinuteClinic, our digital footprint with our Medicare members? So we’re really looking at, how do we lean in and how do we actually see improved health outcomes and decrease disparities in those particular areas.”

The company has also made several investments in affordable housing, most recently in Bel Aire, Kansas, and Seattle

For Jain, one lesson he’s learned in battling health inequities is that there is always more to be done.

“You can almost never do enough in this space,” Jain said. “When you’re trying to undo 350 years of societal wrongs, you don’t do it by setting one goal with one target. That’s not how you do it. But I do think you have to kind of take on one issue at a time and start to make progress, start to change the values of an organization.”

Photo: PeterPencil, Getty Images