Improving equitable care through acts of trust

Compared to their white counterparts, communities of color remain around twice as likely to die from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As this pandemic continues to highlight the disparities of health inequities across the country, many health organizations are working toward answering the question, “How do we deliver equitable care?”
 
For Spectrum Health, that means not only investing in its own internal programs, such as More Life Más Vida or Strong Beginnings, but it also means collaborating with the community. 

Supporting 24 non-profit organizations through strategic partnership funding, Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities initiative serves over 24,000 community members throughout West Michigan. Without these partnerships, Healthier Communities’ Vice President of Medical Education and Research, Paula Schuiteman-Bishop, says they could not reach such a sizable impact.
 
“We can’t do it all,” Schuiteman-Bishop says. “Our goal is to help facilitate the programs that target underserved and underrepresented populations in our community by advancing health equity and we rely upon our community partners to help make a difference in this area.”
 
Whether it’s partnering with Community Food Club on food security or connecting with LINC UP and Dwelling Place, to improve access to affordable housing and lower-cost entry to home ownership in segregated neighborhoods, Jeremy Moore, Spectrum Health's director of community programs and shared services, says good health often correlates with one’s financial security. 

“If you don’t have a lot of money, your health tends to be impacted because about 80% of your health comes out of where you live,” he says. “With the record inflation prices we’re seeing now, it means people’s wages account for less and less.”

Jeremy Moore
 
According to the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health, individuals with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to suffer more chronic conditions, have lower life expectancy and be limited in access to care due to cost and coverage. Because this pandemic has heightened the risks for low socioeconomic status, Schuiteman-Bishop says the first step is to maintain a listening ear. 

“The community is asking to be heard,” she says. “We need to take that information we’re hearing from the community and bring it back into our larger systems so that we can change our own processes, procedures and policies to ensure we’re providing equitable care back into the community.”
 
One way Spectrum Health uses this community-driven mindset to prioritize the needs of West Michigan neighborhoods is through supporting Black-led vaccination efforts. After receiving a $700,000 award from the CDC and Michigan State University’s National Network to Innovate for COVID-19 and Adult Vaccine Equity program, Healthier Communities aims to not only increase the long-term Black vaccination rate through pop-up clinics, but to also provide answers to residents’ questions surrounding COVID-19 and its vaccinations from community leaders they trust. 
 
Healthier Communities’ Director of Community Programs, Lee Moyer, explains that the word “trust” is key to promoting change. “To build trust within the community and its health care organizations, we need to elevate the community’s voices so we understand what exactly they need from us,” he says. “We’ve been working with The Diatribe to set up a space and platform to hear what the community is actually saying. By organizing these listening sessions, we will be able to hear the reasons why our young individuals don’t trust health care and what the hindrances or barriers to getting vaccinated [are].”


 
Because of the pandemic’s toll on youth’s mental health, Moyer adds there has also been an uptick in schools wanting to be a part of Spectrum Health’s School Health Program. Created to boost educational outcomes and reduce absenteeism throughout schools, this initiative provides students with registered nurses and trained school personnel to address any acute illness, injury or chronic health conditions that may be hindering a student’s academic success. “While it started about 25 years ago with one GRPS school, now it’s grown up to 30,” Moyer says. “More and more schools are requesting on-site nurses and health aides because they are realizing we need to care for both our students’ physical and mental health to ensure they are getting the best education by staying in school.”
 
Individual academic achievement is also a predictor of long-term adult health. “While keeping a kid in school may not always lead to upward economic mobility, it will give them a better chance at economic success in the long run,” Moore says. “On the other hand, if a student drops out of school, that’s a really bad sign for their future health.” According to Moore, dropping out of school can risk major chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Lee Moyer
 
The schools are not the only ones showing signs of interest. “By offering these school health programs, we’re giving people access to care who may or may not have had it before in other circumstances,” Moyer says. “Because of this, we’re seeing a new trend where the more exposure to health care there is, the more students are expressing a pursuit in health care as future careers. We’ve seen student athletes who have had their buddies suffer heart attacks and strokes. As a result, now these student athletes want to learn CPR and be more health-minded.” 
 
While Schuiteman-Bishop expresses gratitude for working in a space that allows unmet needs to be addressed, she also states there is still work to be done. “Today is just one day,” she says. “We don’t know what the next pandemic is or what the next 'What if”' will be, but if we can stay the course and continue to support each other by meeting people where they’re at and listening to them, the more impact we can make.”


This article is presented in partnership with Spectrum Health.
Photos by Kristina Bird, Bird + Bird Studio