'These are not stats, they are my reality': MetroHealth's fight against healthcare disparities

We are experiencing a health crisis in Black and brown communities across the United States that is ravaging our neighborhoods and leading to unimaginable loss for many families. 

Life expectancy for Black men is 10 years less than the general population average, minorities are more than two times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women and my adopted hometown — Cleveland, Ohio — has been ranked the least livable place in America for Black women. This is unacceptable in a nation as rich and technologically advanced as the United States, and it is unacceptable in the city of Cleveland, where we have access to some of the best medical resources in the world.

For me, these numbers are not statistics. They are my reality and my pain. I lost my mother to a rare form of leukemia when she was only 46. Both of my grandmothers died of breast cancer and just over a year ago, my baby sister also died of breast cancer at the age of 39. And my own life was at risk twice with preeclampsia, which resulted in premature births of two of my children and weeks of separation as my babies struggled for survival.

But I have not been deterred by these experiences. They motivate me. They are the reason I am committed to eradicating healthcare disparities and zeroing out the death gap. They are why I am laser focused on lifting the health and wealth of all our communities and fixing the brokenness in the healthcare system to ensure everyone gets the high-quality medical care they deserve. Period.

To accomplish this goal, we first need to ensure that everyone has a say in the medical care they receive. Healthcare organizations need to treat our communities as patients and work to identify and better address their collective needs. This includes making a conscious effort to include diverse community voices in every aspect of our organizational structure from the medical care we provide, to how we address social drivers of health, to the buildings we build and where we build them.

Secondly, we need to make improving representation a real priority and make sure our caregivers look like the people they care for. This is acutely necessary when less than 6 percent of physicians and less than 7 percent of nurses in the U.S. are Black. We trust people who look like us, who have the same concerns we have, who know our stories, who know our struggles. And I say this as a Black female CEO in healthcare — an industry where less than 1 percent of its leaders look like me. 

Finally, we need to empower patients. We need to give them the tools to be advocates for themselves and their family members. We need to make it as easy as possible for them to ask questions, get information and ensure they are receiving the best possible care available. And we need to better educate our caregivers so that they have the training and "soft skills" necessary to make every patient feel empowered and in charge of their own health.

Making these changes to our healthcare system will not be easy, but it is an achievable goal if we all work together. Individual healthcare systems do not have all the answers, nor do we always know the right questions to ask. We need to partner with social service organizations, government agencies, businesses and community groups to better define the problems we need to solve and develop solutions that all of our communities are helping to build. 

And above all, we need to listen more. When everyone has a real voice and an actual seat at the table, we make better decisions that have more positive impact for our communities. 

Airica Steed, EdD, RN, is the CEO and president of Cleveland-based MetroHealth System, the public, safety-net hospital for Northeast Ohio.

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