The American Medical Association has hired its first chief health equity officer to launch a new program addressing health disparities in the U.S. and working toward optimal health for all.
Dr. Aletha Maybank, a pediatrician and public health specialist, will head the AMA's new Center for Health Equity, designed to make health equity and diversity a key part of all the organization's processes and activities.
She previously served as deputy commissioner and founding director of the Center for Health Equity within New York City's public health department.
The move is consistent with a trend among public agencies and hospital systems to hire executives to lead initiatives focusing on the social determinants of health.
The AMA House of Delegates approved a policy last year to establish the new center, with a dedicated budget and staff and a multiyear programmatic road map.
"We are excited by Dr. Maybank's vision, her vigor, and the opportunity to address the myriad reasons for health disparities and health inequity, including juvenile justice, bias, stereotyping, prejudice and clinical uncertainty, and the fact that chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension disproportionately affect underserved populations," AMA CEO Dr. James Madara said in a written statement.
In an interview, Maybank said the AMA's decision to hire a chief health equity officer elevates the mission of achieving health equity and diversity in the same way that hiring a chief information officer or chief strategy officer prioritizes those missions.
"You can't just say you're committed to health equity and it will change," she said. "What do we have to do within an institution to challenge how we make decisions and grapple with biases that have existed for years?"
Like the AMA, healthcare providers, payers and other organizations across the country increasingly are focusing on efforts to address the social factors that have created sharp health disparities between different socio-economic, racial and ethnic groups. They are recognizing that medical care alone is not enough to improve health outcomes.
But they often aren't aware of all the variables that can lead to significantly different outcomes in areas such as maternal health and chronic diseases like asthma.
For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier month that African-American, Native American and Alaska Native women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate about three times higher than that for white women.
The researchers said 60% of all pregnancy-related deaths can be avoided through better healthcare, communication and support, as well as access to stable housing and transportation.
Some healthcare providers and payers are collaborating with community groups to identify ways to address social determinant factors.
To head such efforts, several health systems have hired people for similar positions. Cedars Sinai recently hired a chief health equity officer. Kaiser Permanente, the Cleveland Clinic and Sutter Health have each recruited a chief population health officer with the goal of addressing social determinants of health, prevention, and wellness.
Other organizations, such as Johns Hopkins Health System, Advocate Aurora Health, and Children's Minnesota, have hired a chief diversity officer or chief inclusion officer.
Maybank said her office's first priorities will be diabetes and hypertension among black men; patient and physician satisfaction; and medical education. She will be examining the AMA's existing resources to figure out what staff and support she needs to carry out the work.
"Most of health is created outside the hospital system and the physician's office," she said. "It's created by social conditions, education, housing, opportunities to build wealth and the neighborhoods we live in. Those kinds of policies and structures are the foundation of why inequities exist."