This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Throughout the multiple emerging crises in healthcare from the past few years — from surviving the pandemic to workforce shortages — one thing has become resoundingly clear: not everyone has access to or experiences the same level of care.
But how do healthcare leaders and professionals begin to take that understanding and turn it into action to heal care gaps?
In this episode of the Memora Health Care Delivery Podcast, our guest Victor Waters, Chief Medical Officer at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, discusses the state of health equity in the U.S., why healthcare must consistently reflect on its own advancements to prevent harm, and the role of leadership in making a more equitable healthcare system a reality.
Health equity has a seat at the table — but there’s a lot more work to do
The current state of health equity in the U.S. is anything but straightforward. Dr. Waters suggests that, when it comes to progress in this area, the industry still witnesses a mixed bag.
Dr. Waters remarks, “I think we made strides. But we have a long way to go. That’s highlighted with our obstetrical complications and maternal deaths and morbidities — or injuries — in Black women delivering babies … It’s particularly high and concerning. Other areas have come a long way, particularly as we address cardiovascular disease or stroke.”
One key hurdle providers face when striving to heal care gaps among the communities they serve is what happens outside of the hospital. That’s why, Dr. Waters proposes, health systems need to invest more in delivering preventive care and educating patients so that they don’t end up in a hospital bed in the first place.
He expands, “We treat [patients] very well in the hospital system. But can we keep them from coming to the hospital? We need to do a better job at that.”
Healthcare advancements themselves can harm equity if not developed carefully
Beyond assessing how organizations deliver equitable care, healthcare establishments also must evaluate and reflect on current standard practices to ensure they reinforce health equity — and that they don’t actually harm efforts to level the playing field.
Dr. Waters explains, “What we found early is that there’s a race indicator that was used to determine how severe a patient’s kidney disease is. And what’s been determined in the past several years is that the race indicator gave African American patients in particular a false sense of security that they were better or more normal [than they were].”
What do organizations do with revelations Dr. Waters described? They can build community-specific operations that mitigate irrelevant or haphazard advancements. For instance, Dr. Waters describes efforts underway at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, saying, “We launched a screening program … [Additionally] 100% of our laboratories do not print out those types of lab results anymore showing differences between white communities and Black patients.”
This highlights the need in healthcare technology for more customized, people-forward innovations that don’t just embody what works for particular care delivery scenarios — but also fix what doesn’t. The most effective digital healthcare innovators, like Memora Health, boast experts who partner closely with clinical leaders at each health system to ensure newly adopted healthtech achieves this two-pronged goal.
Healing gaps in care starts at the top
There’s nothing that can make or break a health system’s equity initiative like leadership. Executives set the tone, example, and passionate commitment that drive real change. But the backgrounds of these leaders also play a critical part in ensuring health equity programs are delivered effectively and comprehensively.
As Dr. Waters states, “If leadership at the top recognizes and is committed to health equity issues … that’s what makes a difference. There must and needs to be more diversification of our leadership to drive that change. In most other industries that have diversified, it really brings value to the services they’re rendering.”
“If leadership at the top recognizes and is committed to health equity issues … that’s what makes a difference.”
- Victor Waters, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Cente
Another important aspect? How leaders train clinicians to communicate clearly and compassionately with patients. “The most important piece is how to communicate with people, how to listen … We’re so ingrained in technology, so ingrained with looking at the screen, that we lose engagement with the patient.” Memora Health’s intelligent care enablement platform is developed to support better patient-provider relationships at the center — eliminating some routine tasks from clinicians’ plates to give them more room to connect with the individuals they treat. And as physicians get a pause from the noise, they’re more likely to listen closely, better understand their patients’ needs, and help them overcome barriers to care.
Health equity won’t be figured out overnight. But by concentrating on making calculated improvements, reflecting on what best practices work best for specific communities, and unifying diverse leadership behind the goal of health equity, organizations can make significant improvements toward reaching a more equitable healthcare system.