02.19.2021

Black History Month and beyond: Tackling health care disparities

Community Support & Partnerships
Black woman wearing a mask
By Jean Jackman

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the rich culture and incredible contributions of Black people throughout history. It’s also a time to act on addressing longstanding inequities in health care access that disproportionately affect Black people and people of color.

We spoke with five MultiCare employees helping to lead MultiCare’s work on dismantling health disparities. They’re passionate about driving positive change — at work and in their communities. All serve on MultiCare’s Belonging Advisory Council, a diverse group of 25 employees charged with recommending actions to improve MultiCare’s ability to provide equitable health care for all.

Panel:

Sarah Dryfoos-Guss, program manager, Health Equity and Outreach, MultiCare Center for Health Equity and Wellness
Destini Jammeh, physical therapist assistant/lymphedema specialist, MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital
Lynette Owusu, social worker, MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital
Martha Raymond, director, Insurance and Claims, MultiCare Risk and Compliance Services
Nicolette Slaughter, administrative fellow, MultiCare

What are “health disparities” and how do they affect people of color?

Dryfoos-Guss: “Health disparities” refers to the myriad health outcomes that are worse for some people than others. These disparities impact our Black communities and communities of color at higher rates than white communities. For example, maternal and infant mortality rates are higher for Black people, even when you hold socio-economic status constant. Black people receive worse pain management than white people. Black women get diagnosed with breast cancer later, even though they receive similar access to mammograms. The list goes on. Just living with the stress of being Black in America takes a toll on physical and mental health.

Owusu: For people of color and other disadvantaged populations, there aren’t a lot of resources. This can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of: “No matter how hard I try, I can’t get out of this rut.”

Raymond: Disparities affect African-Americans’ health outcomes, quality of life and their ability to act as advocates for their health. Latinx people face similar issues. I’m a white woman, my husband is African-American and we have two children. I learn from their experiences every day. There are unspoken assumptions about the medical care we expect to receive as white people that we take for granted.

Slaughter: Medical providers can have difficulty relating to people of certain cultures and backgrounds. It requires listening, being open-minded, respectful and empathetic. When we don’t take the time to listen, we can miss the cues and opportunities to meet people where they are.

Owusu: From a provider perspective, as a woman of color, I’m constantly checking myself when I enter a patient’s hospital room or just interacting with anyone. Are they going to be receptive to me? It’s a lot of double and triple checking.  What’s considered professionalism in the workplace doesn’t always sit well with diverse people.

What are the reasons for health care disparities?

Dryfoos-Guss: The root causes of health disparities are systemic. You can’t actually separate health from social determinants of health, such as economic opportunity, safe neighborhoods, good schools, access to food. These are complex and inter-related issues.

Also, it can be hard for health care providers to confront their own implicit biases. Health care is fast-paced and providers are pressed for time. In stressful situations, we tend to make quick judgments about people and this is when bias seeps in, even though unintentional.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting access to care for underserved communities?

Jammeh: COVID put a magnifying glass on issues that were already there. Vulnerable populations who were struggling are at more risk. The illness and death rates from COVID for Black people are higher proportionally than for white people.

Dryfoos-Guss: There has been a huge shift with COVID. Our focus is on partnering with our communities to provide equitable access to COVID testing and vaccination. For example, I serve on the Pierce County Health Equity Community Advisory Board. We’re setting up accessible testing and vaccination sites and working hard to reach people in communities that are disparately impacted by COVID.

Slaughter: I manage our COVID-19 community testing sites. We’ve found that offering testing at community clinics makes it more accessible and less intimidating than going into the emergency department or medical offices.

What is MultiCare doing to address health disparities?

Dryfoos-Guss: MultiCare is invested in equity, diversion and inclusion. Our Center for Health Equity and Wellness was created in 2015 and has been evolving to focus more intentionally on health equity. MultiCare leaders believe that we are a community asset and are responsible for serving everyone in our communities.

We partner with many community organizations to improve access and work towards eliminating disparities. In Tacoma, for example, we partner with over 30 community-based organizations that serve our most impacted populations, to come up with meaningful changes together. As a system, we have excellent financial assistance for those who cannot afford the care they need. We invest in training and education, and recently created the Belonging Advisory Council. There is still much to do but we are committed to this journey.

Slaughter: MultiCare is spreading the message that health equity is a priority for all of us. We’re making changes that will benefit our employees, patients and community at large.

Jammeh: The Belonging Advisory Council is off to a great start. We have shared goals. It’s important to me as a woman of color that there is appropriate representation on the Council for my patients and staff members. I believe MultiCare is sincere and wanting to do more. I feel it’s my duty to help make that happen.

Learn more about MultiCare’s Center for Health Equity and the work that MultiCare is doing to advance belonging, equity, diversity and inclusion within our organization and the communities we serve.