Lessons Learned from COVID-19 to Advance Health Equity Going Forward

A number of health disparities were brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led many companies to shift focus when it came to health equity. 

During a panel titled “Health Disparities in the U.S.: Lessons from COVID & the Path Forward” at the Center for Healthcare and Innovation’s Diversity, Inclusion, & Health Equity Symposium – East Coast event, panelists shared health disparities they saw emerge as a result of the pandemic and what their organizations have done toward preventing these issues. 

Richard Chapman, Chief Science Officer at the Innovation and Value Initiative, said the pandemic made his organization realize they couldn’t just look at the average, individual patient. 

“COVID-19 has a lot of implications for society and those around us. And if you look at individual patients, you’re going to miss a lot of the benefits or values of treatments or interventions that can help alleviate COVID-19,” he said. 

Chapman said the health technology assessments his company does don’t necessarily look at the impacts COVID has had on family and caregivers. It also doesn’t look at “the impact of contagion or infection on others around us in society.” 

“I think it really pointed out that you can’t just atomistically look at individual patients, you really need to look at the context around them, and I think that’s something that [Healthcare Distribution Alliance] hasn’t done very well before.”

To help minimize health disparities brought to light by COVID-19, the Innovation and Value Initiative started a health equity movement. Chapman said it’s a two-year initiative and the goal is to have the results of it “permeate the rest of our work.” 

A “methods summit” will be held in March as part of the initiative. 

“What we’re hoping will come out of this is some actionable steps that people doing these types of assessments have to be accountable for. These assessments claim that they are paying attention to health issues, which the health technology assessment frankly in the past just hasn’t done,” he said. 

Aetna, a CVS Health Company, learned to focus more on personalized care during the COVID-19 pandemic and understanding the needs of its patients on both the Aetna side and the retail side, said DeRonn Kidd, Senior Manager, Project Program Manager. (CVS is No. 28 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.)

“COVID did reveal both the disparities that exist, the inequities that exist, but at the same time, it also highlighted some of the segment growth drivers which played a pivotal role in key initiatives that are moving forward in the company,” he said. 

CVS has also been working on its omnichannel strategy, whether that’s through text messaging, mailers or through local retail pharmacies, to reach patients and help them understand the resources that are available to them to achieve their highest level of health. 

“We’re continuing to innovate and we’re continuing to work around some of the challenges we see around health equity,” Kidd added. 

What Would Help Advance Health Equity?

Organizations learned a lot from the COVID-19 pandemic, and now it’s time to take action to advance health equity. But how? 

According to Kenneth Mendez, President and CEO of The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, expanding insurance coverage would be a good step toward advancing health equity. 

Providing or increasing insurance coverage to more people has “been proven to reduce emergency room visits for asthma by 50%, improve quality of life and reduce hospitalizations. 

“What insurance companies need to understand is it’s worth the investment for these upstream interventions because it improves outcomes later,” he said. 

Shannon Stephenson, CEO at Cempa Community Care, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said it’s going to take a collective effort to make a change, adding that everyone in the room at the healthcare event needed to build trust in their communities and let people know they are not being judged when they walk in for care. 

“No one of us is going to do this, but together we could. A lot of times we are really just looking through our lens. I look through the primary care or infectious disease lens. We have the capability to really make a difference,” she said.