In the city of Philadelphia, one child could have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than another in a different ZIP code. That cannot be a statistic we, as a healthcare community invested in outcomes, ignore.
Philadelphia—where I serve as CEO of Jefferson (which includes Jefferson Health, Thomas Jefferson University and Health Partners Plans)—has several glaring health equity issues, such as higher rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and maternal mortality among Black and Latino communities. It is certainly not unique in its challenges. Rather, it is a mirror reflecting the problem of health disparities in the United States.
So how do we as leaders help turn the tide—not just in one city, but across the country?
In today’s healthcare environment, I believe the closest we come to equitable care delivery is within the walls of healthcare facilities. If a patient can make it to a hospital or outpatient site, they have a high likelihood of receiving quality care. But to truly address the complex needs of patients—regardless of language spoken, race, socioeconomic background or neurodiversity status—we need to think beyond the walls of brick-and-mortar facilities and address the upstream factors causing their visits.
We must be more comprehensive in our approach to healthcare and continue prioritizing emerging technologies, telemedicine, remote patient monitoring programs, community-based clinics and mobile services. But, even more, we must build and maintain trust with our communities to create lasting health equity—ensuring residents come to us when they’re well and seeking preventive care, not just when they’re in distress.
As with everything in healthcare, building trust is only possible with the right workforce, meaning we need to invest in educating, training, recruiting and retaining top talent from the diverse communities we serve. As part of this effort, Thomas Jefferson University has focused on increasing its College of Nursing enrollees. Last year, the school graduated nearly 450 nurses, and we retained 360 of them at Jefferson Health. About a third of those new hires are from underrepresented minority groups, a statistic we’re always working to increase.
It’s not only nursing where we are actively building a connection from the university into the health system; it’s across all allied health personnel. I recognize few organizations have the benefit of being both a major health system and a research university known for professions-focused education, but opportunities exist to bolster the pipeline of diverse talent through partnerships across higher education and healthcare.
System leaders can work with their local communities and allied health colleges to identify and implement their own strategies. The research is clear: Care teams who better reflect our patients improve health outcomes. So it’s up to us to set the tone and priorities of our organizations to match what our patients and communities need. We have the power to inspire great change by focusing on this transition from education into practice, which will in turn prepare the next generation of healers to create and maintain an inclusivity-informed culture.
Additionally, we each need to look critically at our own policies and practices that may unintentionally exacerbate inequities. We should re-examine everything we do through a health equity lens, and design (or redesign) our operations with a focus on quality and inclusion. For example, we should assess our service forms and challenge whether a document’s request for “race” or “ethnicity” is influencing care in a way it shouldn’t; prioritize robust interpretation services for deaf and limited-English proficient patients; acknowledge the low literacy of many patients and other barriers to health access; and examine internal medical training and educational programs.
Collaboration must also extend beyond our peers. In April, Humana pledged $15 million to endow three key health equity roles within Jefferson College of Population Health and to advance community engagement and programming across our health system. This is further proof that when we have shared goals, we can craft collaborative solutions. This philosophy extends to partnerships with poliymakers: We should continue to embrace key legislation, such as the Allied Health Workforce Diversity Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December 2022; support federal recognition and designations for Metropolitan Anchor Hospitals; and push back against the proposed $8 billion Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital cuts scheduled to take effect in October.
By working together, we can accelerate the health equity progress on which our patients—and our nation—are counting.