By Mylika Scatliffe
AFRO Women’s Health Writer
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it often results in physical death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 55 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., we are still grappling with the institutional and systemic racism and oppression for which he sacrificed his life. It affects every aspect of life for Black people, including health care.
Black people have fought health care disparities for decades largely due to lack of access to health care for people of color.
Dr. Roderick King, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), is a physician with deep roots in advocacy for health equity. His career spans nearly three decades, but his passion for health care equity stemmed from what he witnessed as a boy and young man growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“My father cared for underserved populations and addressed issues of health in equalities experienced by his patients for nearly four decades, so I’ve witnessed the value of the role community plays in health care all my life,” said King.
King believes one of the reasons for the lack of progress regarding inequities in health care is the oversimplification of the problem.
“We don’t embrace the complexity of understanding that root causes will vary from one area to another and one community to another. The drivers of diabetes among Black men and infant mortality rates for Black women may differ for the rural population on the Eastern Shore of Maryland versus urban west Baltimore,” said King.
Under King’s leadership, each of the eight UMMS hospitals has an equity and patient care team. Each team takes on clinical metric such as pediatric asthma, diabetes, or unplanned return visits to hospital emergency departments, and is tasked with venturing into the community to learn the root causes of these disparities.
King’s wealth of experience includes being a clinician, professor and administrator at an academic medical institution. He also works in health policy with the federal government, which has made him an invaluable asset to building excellence in health equity across all the communities and people served by UMMS.
“People didn’t really believe health disparities existed until a Congress funded report called ‘Unequal Treatment’ in 2003 – only 20 years ago! Its sole purpose was to confirm that health disparities exist in the United States,” said King.
Fast forward 20 years, and UMMS has what King calls a “watershed” moment of demonstrating how a health system can address equity and patient care.
“I don’t think there is any health system in the country doing what we’re doing – using data, identifying key disparities, driving action plans and measuring our impact within different communities. Others have already started to watch and take notice and begin to emulate what we’re doing at the University of Maryland system,” said King.
Community outreach is also a passion of Dr. Pat Mathews-Juarez, senior vice president for strategic initiatives and innovation, and professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. As a native of rural North Carolina, advocating for health care equity at the community level has been her life’s work in one way or another.
“Access to health care services is critical for good health and increased quality of life. People living in rural and underserved communities historically encounter extreme barriers to accessible heath care services. This is deemed as common and usual in a rational health care system,” said Matthews-Juarez.
“I knew that from growing up in the rural South that my job was to become an instrument for doing what I thought was good. I understood it took much more than just having an idea. People had to get involved at the community level.” Matthews-Juarez continued.
Matthews-Juarez has sought health care equity in communities around the United States including in New York, North Carolina, Boston, Los Angeles as well as London, England.
She believes community health workers help get information to underserved communities and help them leverage access to care.
Meharry Medical College along with CVS is working to expand the community health workforce. They will collaborate to increase local clinician diversity and decrease health disparities, and make sure historically oppressed and marginalized communities in the largely rural communities throughout Tennessee have equitable access to health resources.
“There are Black men in the Mississippi Delta that are losing their limbs and on dialysis because of diabetes. There are Black women who are experiencing poor maternal outcomes. And it’s because they don’t have access to information and care. Why aren’t the men given information on managing their diabetes? Why are Black women just being told to watch their blood pressure but not being actively monitored to control it?” asked Matthews-Juarez.
“This collaboration will leverage our mission to improve health outcomes and advance health equity,” said Matthews-Juarez.
King and Matthews-Juarez have similar missions – to put ideas into action.
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