Driving an Agenda to Close Health Disparity Gaps

Driving an Agenda to Close Health Disparity Gaps

We all know that health disparity gaps have been blown open by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the heartbreaking video of George Floyd’s last breaths widened our collective aperture of the horror of police violence endured by Black men, the data and visual stories told about how communities of color have been ravaged five times more than white communities in the wake of this unrelenting coronavirus have blown open the reality of the gaps in our healthcare system. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m drawing this parallel because while we can’t and should never look away at what happened to George Floyd, my fear is that we’ll lose focus on health disparity gaps and what we can do as healthcare communicators to close them.

The data clearly show health disparities are steeped in economics and poverty, burdened by conscious and unconscious bias, widened by disease-causing pollution and climate change and exacerbated by lack of education and misinformation.

Zip codes make more of a difference in the health disparities gap than genetic codes. And today more than ever, lines of communication get crossed and turned, making healthy dialogues impossible and diminishing the ability for any of us to pursue health and happiness, which is our right as people living on this shared planet.
The statistics are shattering:

  • Black Americans are almost twice as likely as White Americans to lack health insurance.
  • Black Americans live, on average, five years less than White Americans.
  • The rate of COVID-19 infections is approximately 10 percent higher among Black individuals, and 30 percent higher among Hispanic/Latino individuals, compared with White non-Hispanic individuals.
  • Black and American Indian Alaska Native women have pregnancy-related mortality rates that are over three and two times higher, respectively, compared to White women.
  • When compared to White Americans, racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services.
  • Transgender people face numerous health disparities as well as stigma, discrimination and lack of access to quality care, resulting in higher rates of HIV infection—especially among transgender women of color—and lower likelihood of preventive cancer screenings in transgender men.
  • Facilities emitting dangerous particulate air pollution disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Particularly, communities living below the poverty line have 35 percent higher particulate matter emissions in their air.
  • Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths, and further exacerbating chronic conditions and diseases including asthma, cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, birth defects in children, heart disease, stroke and lung disease.

So, now what? We can pontificate about the problem, play the blame game, stay so steeped in the minutia that nothing really changes or, as healthcare communicators, we can make a concerted effort to change the way we think, talk and mobilize.

From what I know, many of us who’ve been around for a few decades fell into communications or public relations before they were even subjects to take in night school.

It was not long ago that Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications—which began as a journalism school in 1930s—recognized PR as a legitimate career path. And even with this pedigree, more often than not, we tend to be saddled with unflattering descriptors such as spin doctors, propagandists, hacks, and thanks to the era of anything goes nonsense we are left with an overwhelming cleanup call on every aisle in the store.

The facts remain clear. Vaccines are healthcare. Women’s dominion over our own bodies is healthcare. Gender identification is healthcare. Stopping domestic violence is healthcare. Stopping gun violence is healthcare. Stopping police brutality is healthcare. All mental health issues are healthcare. They aren’t political. They aren’t amorphous. They aren’t exclusive. They aren’t a zero-sum game. They impact all of us and they require a dedication not only to excellence in communications but a commitment to courage, creativity, craftsmanship and community.

How can healthcare communicators understand and close health disparity gaps?

  • Understand and address how unconscious bias may impact communications.
    Action: Go to Harvard’s Project Implicit to assess your own potential unconscious bias and develop a go-forward plan.
  • Look through the lens of specific individuals, take time to walk in their shoes, and develop communications accordingly.
    Action: Get out of your comfort zone to expand experiences, challenge critical thinking skills, and create new pathways to conquer age-old problems.
  • Champion individuals, organizations, and efforts that are focused on closing the gap of health disparities, especially those providing resources during the COVID pandemic.
    Action: Seek out individuals, organizations, and efforts that align with these objectives, including Black Women’s Health Imperative, The Loveland Foundation, The Trevor Project and others.
  • Elevate the fact that we are all interconnected, and that viruses, pollution, discrimination, and prejudice know no borders.
    Action: Speak out and take actions every day to further diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our lives.

Healthcare communicators are a special lot. We know what works and we have a privileged and important responsibility to drive healthy conversations on every level that are based on science, facts and good will for all.

As Father McShane said to the incoming Fordham University Freshman Class of 2025, quoting what he called the “scariest scripture there is”: “to those who have been given much, much is expected.” He repeated it three times.

We all have a job to do to make the world a healthier and happier place and to drive a reality of equitable abundance. And the only way we do this is to keep opening our own apertures, instilling equity and inclusion in our hiring practices and through all our strategies, messaging and programs, leading with science and attacking misinformation with a vengeance.

We all have a job to do, and there’s no doubt we can make a healthy impact together.