5 Important Steps for Advancing Health Equity

A diverse group of notable experts shared insights about addressing racial health disparities at Amgen’s latest health equity conference.

In October, the Amgen Health Equity Summit brought together diverse experts and leaders from across the healthcare industry to discuss both the history and current reality of racial disparities in health outcomes. Panelists, which included Amgen CEO Bob Bradway as well as leaders in health insurance, academia, medical research and social justice, delivered powerful messages about the steps and solutions that healthcare organizations must take to begin closing these gaps.

Here’s a look at five key messages from the Amgen Health Equity Summit. For an even deeper understanding of how these important issues affect Black Americans and other people of color, watch the full video of the summit below.

1. Helping bridge disparities

William Shrank, MD, chief medical and corporate affairs officer for health insurance company Humana, explained how healthcare organizations can and should collaborate with diverse partners that focus on addressing social determinants of health — such as food scarcity, housing, transportation and broadband internet access — that drive health disparities.

“The pandemic shined a very bright light on the fault lines in our public health system and the fragmentation of our health care delivery system,” he said. “At the same time, I think there has been really wonderful evidence from the private sector where payers, providers, manufacturers, lab companies have all rolled up our sleeves together and tried to figure out how to fill in those fault lines.”

2. Fostering community involvement

When it comes to taking an inclusive approach to medical research that is respectful of diverse ethnic groups, Sabrina Noel, PhD, RD, assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell discussed the importance of engaging trusted and credible community members.

“Getting into the community, getting involved in as many different discussions as you can, and learning about all the different organizations and what they bring to the table is really important,” she said. “I work with my community partners to develop research from the beginning. My partners are involved in the research development, in writing the grants, in coming up with the ideas. I ensure that my research agenda is also matched with the priorities of the community.”

3. Establishing long-term commitments

Amgen CEO Bob Bradway said that achieving true health equity will be a journey of a thousand steps, and the commitment must be sustained over time. Embracing a long-term commitment to reach these populations appropriately — from molecule to market — is the best way to realize this goal.

“We need to try to maintain the energy that was created by the urgent problems of 2020 and to make sure that we continue to take the steps that are going to be needed in order to complete this journey,” Bradway said. “This has to be a long-term commitment. It’s going to require resources — dollars and cents — but also some of our very best people over a long period of time for us to make progress.”

4. Overcoming a history of mistrust

Deep-seated mistrust of the healthcare system has been persistent and pervasive among Black communities in the U.S. throughout the country’s history, explained Harriet A. Washington, award-winning medical writer and author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Washington explained that the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which hundreds of Black men were notoriously abused and misled as medical research subjects, is often cited as a reason why many Black Americans mistrust the healthcare system, which can obscure the fact that abuse, neglect and biases in healthcare have been part of the Black experience for more than 400 years. Washington suggested that healthcare organizations must acknowledge this history of discrimination while making concerted efforts to earn the trust of these patient populations.

“If someone harms you, then denies they harm you, are you going to trust that person again?” Washington said. “What would help the situation would be that the history I detail becomes part of the medical canon. Scientists, medical students, and historians need to learn the history, so that when something presents as an abuse or African Americans express fear, they don’t automatically go to Tuskegee."

5. Taking action for change

All the panelists of the Amgen Health Equity Summit agreed that advocates, industry, providers, community partners and others should work together to ensure that quality, affordable and culturally competent health care is equally accessible to all Americans. “It is incumbent upon everyone to work together to reduce adverse outcomes and the things that lead to them,” said Oliver Brooks, MD, chief medical officer, Watts HealthCare Corporation, and immediate past president of the National Medical Association. “We have to understand what we went through, correct the mistakes that were there, and go forward from this with what we have learned.”

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