The issue of health equity in America is gaining attention as more people realize its extraordinary potential to improve lives, enhance the nation’s economy, and further our collective goals of achieving greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in our country. The stark differences that people experience as they grow up manifest in myriad ways, but perhaps none more starkly than in the disparate healthcare access and outcomes that occur in our society.

The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest example. A recent study published by JAMA found that “Black, Hispanic, and Asian people have substantially higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death compared with White people.” In an article in Harvard Business Review, Mark Harrison MD, President and CEO of Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare puts it in simple terms. “Sadly, these types of stark disparities are not new or unique to COVID-19. Key to tackling these disparities is addressing the social determinants of health,” he writes.

Health access and health outcomes affect everyone in our country – both at home and in the workplace. Life sciences, biotech, healthcare, and companies in other sectors are beginning to comprehend how health inequities affect their workforce, impact productivity, and influence their bottom lines. A 2021 McKinzey survey found that workers take the matter very seriously.

“Our survey results indicate that employees of large US employers, even those earning high salaries, face healthcare disparities. For example, Black, Hispanic and Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ+ individuals were less likely to report receiving the care they needed and were more likely than the overall employee population to report considering switching employers for reasons related to benefits.”

This insightful research underscores a serious risk for life sciences and other companies who are committed to building a more diverse workforce and cannot afford to lose high-performing BIPOC employees because of health equity issues.

health equity

The Social Determinants of Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified five primary social determinants of health:

  • Neighborhood and physical environment
  • Access to quality healthcare
  • Occupational and job conditions
  • Income and wealth
  • Education

Each of these factors affects the outcomes achieved through our interactions with our healthcare system. So, what does a truly equitable healthcare system actually look like?

The CDC has proclaimed that, “Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to ‘attain his or her full health potential’ and no one is ‘disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.’ Health inequities are reflected in differences in length of life; quality of life; rates of disease, disability, and death; severity of disease; and access to treatment.”

The benefits of health equity are crystal clear, yet progress is slow. As Mary Stutts, the Chief Global Inclusion & Health Equity Officer at Real Chemistry and a member of the Slone Partners Advisory Board, writes, “despite widespread calls for advancing health equity and a wave of commitments from organizations to drive equal access to health and improved outcomes for all, real change remains elusive.”

Building the Foundations of Health Equity

There are multiple hurdles to achieving health equity, but none of them are unsurmountable. A recent report released by the Brookings Institution outlined five strategies to move the ball forward:

  • Greater use of telehealth systems “as a potential tool to improve access and the quality of care for people who are unable or less willing to seek traditional, in-person health services.”
  • The expansion of healthcare teams to improve “the coordination, efficiency, and value of care delivery for both patients and direct health providers.”
  • Expanded partnerships with existing community assets, “such as religious institutions, public libraries, and even barbershops…to build trust and convey public health messages” in underserved communities.
  • Improved coordination between housing and health care because evidence indicates that, “Health and housing partnerships that can deliver coordinated care—including needs assessments, help with the housing search, and medical referrals and supports—are often critical for improving quality of life for people with complex health conditions and/or housing instability.”
  • Increased funding for mental health services to “allow state and local governments to support some expansions of care for the most vulnerable individuals and communities.”

Leaders in biotech, healthcare, and the life sciences can and should play a significant role in advancing the cause of health equity. A 2021 article in HealthCareDive referenced the fact that “virtually all healthcare organizations from health systems and payers to life sciences manufacturers are now trying to understand how to address social determinants of health (SDOH) to improve outcomes and advance health equity.”

The article co-authors argue that the SDOH present two opportunities for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers specifically.

“The first is helping patients stay on their healthcare journeys. By addressing SDOH factors that may cause patients to stop seeking care, manufacturers can help increase the number of patients who go on to receive appropriate therapies and improve outcomes. The second is bringing new dimensions of ‘value’ to health systems and payers. By offering expertise in individual therapy areas, a manufacturer can partner with other healthcare stakeholders to create mutual benefit while simultaneously achieving the first goal,” they stated.

Ramona Sequeira, President of Takeda Pharmaceuticals USA, writes that the interconnectedness of the healthcare system presents opportunities for companies to address health disparities at various stages.

“When thinking about social determinants of health, we think about access and reimbursement for medicines, but also focus on patients’ access to healthcare in general and their ability to get properly diagnosed and educated. And we also can’t forget about caregiver support. These things are critically important to a patient finding their way through the health system to the right healthcare professional, getting accurately diagnosed and getting on the right medicine. It’s connected.” she told HealthEvolution in a recent article. “So, we always have to make sure we’re thinking beyond our medicines.”

The push for health equity is gaining traction in our country as awareness builds. It is our collective job as a society to ensure this effort continues and creates lasting positive change.