Embedding Health Equity into the Core of Healthcare

The Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health was released in 1985, serving as a catalyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to begin addressing health disparities, and Congress to form the Office of Minority Health within HHS the following year. Today, much of the progress in this arena is taking place in the private sector. The healthcare industry is taking steps to achieve health equity with considerable vigor and with some lessons learned under its belt. The Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC), representing all health industry sectors, released a report in January 2023 with ZS, entitled, “Addressing Health Equity: Practical Solutions to Address Variations in Care,” identifying multiple structural barriers in both the private and public sectors that contribute to existing health disparities. The report was followed by a release stating HLC members’ commitment to shared principles aimed at eliminating health disparities. HLC also recently hosted a webinar, “Breaking Down Barriers to Achieve the Highest Level of Health,” in which representatives from its member companies discussed current strategies and overarching philosophies. The panel was made up of three participants:

  • Joneigh Khaldun, MD, Chief Health Equity Officer, CVS Health
  • Josette Gbemudu, Executive Director, Health Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Merck
  • Keith Dawson, Principal Science Leader, Global Health Equity and Population Science, Genentech

Dr. Khaldun opened by describing CVS’s enterprise-wide health equity strategy, highlighting the need to empower all employees by educating them about systemic inequities and providing tailored training for cultural competency. Dr. Khaldun also talked about measuring what matters to uncover inequities and utilizing these insights to design programs and policies to address them effectively. Examples of specific programs included CVS’s Community Equity Alliance, which aligns academic, community and healthcare partners to expand and integrate community health workers into care teams, and its workforce innovation training centers, which support job training needs across the country. Dr. Khaldun noted that disparities took centuries to develop, and that health equity is a journey that will not be achieved by one initiative in a short period of time.

Josette Gbemudu echoed Dr. Khaldun in that there must be internal integration of health equity across an entire business and not just through one initiative. She pointed to Merck’s $650 million commitment to improving maternal health globally and how it is using the learnings to embed health equity into its core business functions. Citing numerous statistics to show the broad range of disparities, Josette shared that Merck is not just focused on addressing social determinants of health barriers such as food insecurity, health literacy and health access, but it is dedicated to strengthening the entire health ecosystem. Merck Foundation launched a $20 million initiative to advance equity in U.S. cancer care. Josette emphasized that many communities have historically been unable to access screenings, which leads to later diagnoses and poorer outcomes. The alliance is utilizing a collaborative approach to build community partnerships in order to address barriers to care.

Keith Dawson discussed Genentech’s efforts to develop solutions that will broaden inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in clinical research so that all patients can realize the full benefits of personalized healthcare. He stressed that clinical research is not benefiting all groups equally, that genomic data is not diverse enough and that Blacks and Hispanics are not informed about clinical trial opportunities. The diversity of patients enrolled in clinical studies is highly correlated with site personnel diversity, he pointed out. Keith stated that Genentech prioritizes fostering belonging and cultivating an environment where all are included. The Advancing Inclusive Research Site Alliance Partnership was created to develop an ecosystem based on trust and meeting patients where they are. This alliance uses an external council of advisors and patient and provider partnerships to provide educational tools to improve awareness of clinical trials. It also distributes grants to external organizations striving to address inclusive research, equity in care and workforce diversity.