When you think about public health, a recording studio may not be the first place that comes to mind, but The Record Co. was generous enough to give its space for a community conversation about disparities in healthcare last Friday. Several of the panelists were Black women, reflecting the diversity of the audience. An image of a smiling Black family lit up the screen behind them.
On September 16, the Boston Medical Center hosted “The Power of Now: Combating Health Inequity,” a panel discussion on healthcare disparities in maternal and mental health in underserved communities. At the panel, BMC President Kate E. Walsh, VP of Mission and Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thea L. James, VP of Community Engagement and External Affairs Patrine M. Cherry, Psychiatrist Dr. Christine M. Crawford, and BMC Program Manager Giavanna A. Gaskin shared their experiences working to close racial disparities in health and their visions of the future.
The panelists talked about the systemic distrust of healthcare systems within communities of color, stemming from a history of racist practices, from James Marion Sims’ nonconsensual experiments on Black women and the U.S. Public Health Service’s unethical Tuskegee syphilis experiment, to the stealing of patient Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells and the perpetuation of myths like Black people’s higher pain tolerance.
Boston Medical Center works to address these issues through programs such as the Health Equity Accelerator, which was launched in 2021 as Covid-19 made the racial and economic disparities in health more apparent. The project aims to eliminate racial gaps in life expectancy and quality of life by bringing together “leading-edge research methodologies, patient insights and community partnerships, and clinical operations capabilities” according to BMC’s Health Equity Report. The Health Equity Accelerator targets access barriers such as lack of transportation as well as structural issues like lack of economic resources.
In terms of resolving access barriers, Gaskin described one program that sends patients home with blood pressure cuffs. This allows nurses to monitor them remotely using a feature that enables them to exchange messages. Gaskin says this program is important not only to help with blood pressure management, but also to build relationships with nurses. With this relationship comes a more open line of communication, potentially helping patients feel more comfortable opening up to nurses with other issues, such as lack of transportation which might affect their ability to get to appointments or pick up medications. Once these issues are identified, Gaskin says, BMC has worked to find solutions such as partnering with pharmacies in the area to get medication to clients.
In terms of addressing structural issues, one of the Health Equity Accelerator’s major projects is the Boston Opportunity System Collaborative, a partnership with hospitals and local organizations to create jobs and affordable housing in the community.
These opportunities at improving economic flexibility empower people to make their health a priority, by giving them resources that make survival easier, says James. “It all comes down to economics. They can’t prioritize their health when they are prioritizing survival.”
BMC and the Health Equity Accelerator are also working to break down the distrust of healthcare systems that exists within communities of color by recognizing the importance of centering community. BMC has collaborated with community-based organizations to facilitate conversations and advisory committees, so that people can have a say in what solutions best suit their needs.
Throughout, the panelists stressed that solutions cannot be effective without the input of the community, as they are the ones who understand what is needed to improve their lives.
“Nothing about us without us,” Cherry says. “Those closest to the pain and the problem should be closest to the solutions.”
— Magazine writer Eden A. Getahun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @edengetahun03.