Health Conditions

Healthcare experts want to use COVID-19 to address medical disparity due to race

It didn’t take the spread of coronavirus to realize that the American healthcare system had large problems with disparity of care and treatment based on socioeconomic status and race, but the pandemic certainly highlighted and exacerbated the issues already at play. Now, healthcare leaders are hoping that they can use the crisis to address these problems at their core and develop longstanding solutions to the inequalities that have long existed in the system. 

Nationally, the percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Native American cases and deaths of COVID-19 exceed their share of the population, according to the most recent data. Black Americans get infected with and die from the virus at rates more than 1.5 times their share of the population.

“Obviously this is systemic, so for us to say at this point in time that we’re just learning about this [disparity] would be somewhat disingenuous,” said Rhonda Mims, the regional vice president of community affairs at Centene Corporation at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference on Thursday. 

“In order for us to tackle something like this we have to face the truth and realize that we got here through generations of unhealthy eating, stress, climate change, and lack of housing. There are a host of things that drove us to not having great health outcomes but now is the time for us to face up to it and tackle it. We’re not going to bury our heads,” she continued. 

Centene, a healthcare insurer that focuses on managed care for uninsured and low-income individuals, announced a new initiative in May: a Health Disparities Task Force made up of medical leaders across the country who will meet regularly with a focus on studying the causes of healthcare disparities among the most vulnerable populations and recommend solutions to help them. 

“We at Stanford medicine often talk about how zip codes are the greatest predictor of our long term health, more than genetic health,” said Priya Singh, chief strategy officer at Stanford Medicine. Her team has been focusing on precision health instead of precision medicine, she said. Her team tries to treat populations from preventive and predictive lenses instead of just treating ailments in primary care clinics. A permanent increase in telemedicine will also help underserved communities, she said. 

There also has to be more outreach to minority communities in drug trials, said Dr. Susanne Schaffert, president of Novartis Oncology.

“When we develop normal medicines…we haven’t put emphasis on including diverse populations. This is critical because outcomes can be different with different backgrounds, and it also ensures that diverse populations get the same early access to new treatments,” she said. 

Recent data has found that people of color are underrepresented in COVID-19 vaccine trials. New guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, strongly encourages diverse populations in clinical drug trials to guarantee effectiveness.

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