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Friday, December 2, 2022

Opinion: Achieving health equity begins with empathy

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By ROD COTTON

Health inequities due to discrimination, bias and lack of access are preventing many Americans from achieving their best health.

As a Black man and a health care leader in the U.S., this issue is deeply personal for me.

Earlier this year, my mother’s hospital pharmacist assumed she didn’t have health coverage for an expensive, low-risk blood thinner and instead prescribed a risky, more affordable drug that could have killed her.

After the pharmacist substituted an inappropriate medication for my mom, I asked, “Would you prescribe that drug to your mother?” He switched the meds — and his approach. This experience once again showed me true health equity will only take place when we gain full awareness of the problem — and work toward treating all patients with the same care we’d want for our own loved ones.

Sadly, racial and ethnic disparities in health have been the norm in the U.S. for a long time. People of color face disparities in health care and coverage, including disproportionate rates of illness and death during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Indiana, for example, only 37% of Black people have received COVID-19 vaccinations. Many blame this on vaccine hesitancy, but at the foundation is lack of access to trusted information and resources. In a recent NPR report, Dr. Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician and public health advocate, talked about how the primary barrier to COVID-19 vaccination is access:

“We sometimes blame individual patients or patients of color, like Black folks in particular, for many of their health ailments. … In this country, one out of five Black adults are unlikely to have a regular provider. They don’t have somebody that they go to who they trust for their clinical care.”

To build trust, we must create a more inclusive and diverse health care system.

Another way to do this is through clinical trials. Clinical trials help create funding justifications for research to bring forward medical innovations and breakthroughs that improve the quality of care. More inclusive and diverse clinical trials will help ensure those improvements are for everyone — not just certain populations.

To conduct diverse clinical trials, you need diverse trial participants. And to those who say it’s too difficult to find people of color to take part in clinical trials, I say: Where are you looking?

The National Minority Quality Forum has created a database using 5 million patient records and showing 38,000 ZIP codes, with 8,000 ZIP codes that represent the most diverse populations. Having this data on hand — and knowing where to target — empowers researchers to drive more representative clinical trials and tangible results.

Indianapolis is the U.S. headquarters for Roche Diagnostics, where more than 3,000 people work together to provide insights that help people manage and improve their health. Health equity in clinical trials is an important area of focus to me and my colleagues. We’ve set a goal at Roche to achieve broad coverage and access for new diagnostics, supported by inclusive clinical trial design within five years. And Roche aims to double patient access to new, high-medical-value diagnostics solutions in 10 years.

Health equity is a big topic, but one we can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by if we want to improve our health care system and the quality of life for every single American.

Every successful movement starts with empathy. Think about how you’d like to see your own loved ones treated in a health care situation. If every health care leader, organization, provider and patient adopted this mindset, we could imagine a truly equitable health system where everyone has the same promise of better health.

Rod Cotton is senior vice president, strategy, and transformation, and chief of staff at Roche Diagnostics North America.

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