Women’s History Month: Panelists Explore Pathways to Health Equity

March 29, 2024

Putting Equity at the Center of the Women’s Health Conversation

Complex problems require creative solutions. While many women still face significant barriers to quality care, a way forward is possible.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Beth Israel Lahey Health’s (BILH) DEI office hosted a panel discussion with some of our leaders at the forefront of the fight for health equity.

Barriers to Women’s Care are Deep and Entrenched

Our panelists started their discussion by naming some of the unseen obstacles to care. Sedentary lifestyles can put women at risk for several health conditions, and single moms often struggle to find the money to pay for essential care.

For many women – especially women of color – these problems are compounded by a legacy of discrimination in the health care industry. This can make it difficult to trust doctors’ health advice and leave others unwilling to take part in their own care.

For providers serious about achieving health equity, providing access to quality services is only half the battle; it’s also essential to undo those legacies of discrimination to break down barriers to care.

To Implement Change, Institutions Need to Change

Health care facilities are community bodies, and to achieve lasting change in the community, they need to change at the institutional level.

That can be a challenge. Institutions are large, cumbersome and can be slow to change, but for Dr. Kim D. Ariyabuddhiphongs, associate chief medical officer at BILH Performance Network, there are reasons to be optimistic.

“Some patients have challenges with medication and navigating the maze of payor coverage. We can help with that. Some have concerns about the side effects of their medicines. We can help with that. I think we’re poised to really think about creative solutions.”

Dr. Yael Heher echoed this sentiment. As chief quality officer at BILH, she sees the value in leveraging safety events to uncover implicit biases and detect differences in care.

“When using equity to inform our root cause analyses, we ask, ‘Was there anything about the patient’s race, gender, socioeconomic status or health literacy that contributed to the event?’ It can be pretty shocking how often there are factors like these.”

Once organizations understand where they’re going wrong, they can begin designing meaningful, lasting solutions.

Personal Relationships are Where Change Comes Alive

“There is a covenant between care providers and patients,” Dr. Heher said. This the bedrock of quality health care. At the end of the day, people naturally trust other people more than they trust institutions, and it’s in those personal relationships where patients really feel change.

“I think creating systems that enable clinicians to focus on the emotional concerns of the patient is one of the essential ingredients to promoting trust,” said Dr. Leonor Fernandez, medical director of health equity at BILH. “If I am too distracted by information systems, it takes my presence away from my interactions with patients.”

But this won’t happen on its own; individual providers need to have the capacity to assess their own shortcomings and learn the skills needed to engage with their patients in a meaningful way.

“We have to ask whether we have the capacity, the resources and the capabilities to provide the care we need to provide,” said Adelline Ntatin, vice president of health equity at BILH. “It’s also thinking about whether the environments we have in place are conducive to us bringing our best to work.”

Change is Incomplete Without People and Systems Working Together

On their own, institutional change is too impersonal and personal interactions aren’t sweeping enough; systems and people need to work together to institute lasting change. For people to thrive in their role as caregivers, they need to have institutional support to translate data points into real-life impact.

The panelists agreed: For many of their female patients, what matters most is not whether this or that enzyme reached the right level; it’s whether they have the energy to go to work, the headspace to be there for their kids, and the well-being to enjoy their lives.

Guaranteeing that level of care to everyone is what health equity is all about.