In 2020, more than 800 women died in the United States as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. Moreover, Black women are 3 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.
According to Dr. Terri Wright, Palladium Racial Health Equity Advisor, there’s a growing body of evidence that stress can affect maternal mortality. “Racism, racial discrimination, systemic inequities, and the social determinants of health contribute to poor maternal health outcomes in the Black community specifically, and in one of the wealthiest nations in the world,” she explains.
Where and with whom does the answer to this deadly problem lie? In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Black maternal mortality rate is higher than in other similar cities in the US, one organisation is trying to find a sustainable solution, and part of it just might be with employers.
Jessica Brooks is the CEO of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health (PBGH), an organisation trying to redefine and advance discussion around health care value, access, and quality, on behalf of employers for the benefits of employees. One of the things Brooks stresses is that the members of PBGH are focused on ensuring that their employees have the benefit of equitable access and care, no matter who they are and where they live.
But outside of the group’s member organisations, Brooks says that employers taking note of health disparities due to race is a relatively new phenomenon. “Employers started paying the most attention to this concept of disparities just recently, at the height of COVID-19, where we saw headlines around the country around Black and brown people dying at higher rates or contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than white people.”
This, she says, has been a spark for many employers to start thinking about how they can ensure their employees receive equitable healthcare.
“There has been no other time in our history where employers have seen themselves as responsible to activate around not only addressing equity in the form of pay, but also in addressing bias and the consequences of racism,” explains Brooks. “Racism is not a word you can comfortably say out loud in many company cultures and organisations, though it’s the reason why we have these healthcare disparities.”
So, in a contentious environment where organisations are unclear on the right step to take or haven’t heard from their teams about these issues, how can the right health care address the issue?
Money talks, says Brooks, and when PBGH is collaborating with healthcare delivery systems, hospitals, providers, and more, she asks for a strategic health equity commitment and plan. “I want to hear that plan directly from the C-Suite and then I want to see how that translates to the folks that will be touching my people.”
But it’s easier said than done. “Those commitments of anti-racism that we’ve seen in the past two years still haven’t translated from the executive leadership offices down a few floors to the HR leaders or the benefits administrators who directly impact the healthcare their employees have access to,” Brooks adds. One thing she suggests for employers is connecting their largest expense – salaries – to the mission driven work of anti-racism that they’re committing to globally through KPIs.
“In addition, looking at the data is critical, and looking at it with a race and ethnicity lens,” says Brooks. “You may have data about how many women or people of colour are in your workforce, and separately you have data around your healthcare, but they may not be integrated.” This could leave organisations in the dark, and unable to proactively assist employees to navigate the quality of care delivered by healthcare systems.
Ultimately, Brooks notes that it’s time for health equity to move beyond being a community program or public health issue and instead become a business solution and a moral imperative. At the end of the day, not only is it the right thing to do as an employer – but it delivers on anti-racist commitments and is, in fact, good for a business’ bottom line.
It won’t happen overnight, but a key part, says Brooks, will be telling stories, capturing the lived experiences, and elevating the voices of those who are impacted by health inequities, while creating a sense of urgency for organisations to step up to protect their employees.
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