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3 Black diversity chiefs on how they’ll fight racial inequality in medicine

June 18, 2021, 5:00 PM UTC

On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that establishes Juneteenth as the nation’s 12th federal holiday. As Juneteenth becomes a public holiday, what are corporations doing about equality? And, specifically, the health care business community?

One day off (for some workers, anyways) may be an overdue political gesture and recognition of long-standing inequities. Corporations, however, carry the power to enact change on a far more immediate and tangible level. And there are few things more immediate or tangible to address than the Black communities’ historical lack of access to health care and the societal ills which afflict their well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored those festering wounds.

Brands love to play up their dedication to social justice, particularly through the recent trend of hiring chief diversity officers. How much of that is a PR stunt versus true devotion is an open question. But in medicine, it can literally be a matter of life and death.

Fortune spoke with three chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officers across the gamut of the health care industry, including pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, health insurance and overall medical titan UnitedHealth Group, and venerated hospital group Kaiser Permanente. Here’s what motivates them, and what they plan to do to make a true dent in the health inequities suffered by Black communities.

A son of immigrants and a harbinger of change

Ramcess Jean-Louis is no stranger to leading corporations to better diversity and inclusion strategies as a veteran in the space at Verizon Media. Now Jean-Louis, a son of Haitian immigrants with seven siblings, is taking over the same role at Pfizer.

The pandemic has been at the top of Jean-Louis’ mind and led to his transition to his new role, which was just announced this week. “I think whenever you get an opportunity to work for a company like Pfizer it’s definitely something that, you know, you take seriously, but particularly now,” he tells Fortune.

“During this time — when you take a look and see that Pfizer is in the process of helping to define what normal looks like in terms of equity in healthcare and in the distribution of the vaccine, and is helping people get back into the world — it seemed like a very exciting opportunity.”

Ramcess Jean-Louis
Courtesy of Ramcess Jean-Louis/Verizon Media

But what really drives Jean-Louis’ thinking is how to build trust in the Black community from a corporate standpoint. That’s the kind of practical consideration that requires meaningful engagement not just within an organization, but outside of it. And he has some ideas about what he wants to accomplish in his first year on the job, whether it comes to shaping Pfizer’s policies around equitable COVID vaccine distribution or other persistent health gaps in the Black community in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other conditions.

“It’s really about, how do you bring it to the next level? How do you get to the next evolution of diversity, equity, and inclusion, how do you ensure that you have representation throughout the organization on all levels and also ensure that your strategic objectives are all met?” he said.

The organizational part of that necessarily entails diversifying a workforce and making sure their voices are heard. But there’s a next step: Striking up public-private partnerships in order to glean the needs of specific communities. That may mean educational campaigns with the help of, say, faith-based groups that have more personal relationships with local residents to combat vaccine hesitancy.

That’s also a legacy problem. “We can’t ignore the past,” said Jean-Louis. “We have to recognize that historically, there have been those incidents, from the Tuskegee syphilis study, to different drug trials that were used with regards to African Americans, and how they were inappropriate.”

Going forward, Jean-Louis is setting his major goal as a normalization of vaccines, getting more diverse groups of people into clinical trials, and building lasting relationships within underserved communities.

“What I have to say is, how I’m going to judge myself, is representation, and really making sure that people feel valued and appreciated, so that we can truly leverage the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion, for the benefits of our patients and for society.”

Improving access to care

Joy Fitzgerald’s family didn’t quite understand what was wrong with her uncle. While she was in middle school, he’d come back from a military tour and was a different man from when he left.

“He was not the same. And due to a lack of education, access and awareness, my family was unaware and underprepared to, number one, understand why he was different, but to even be able to advocate for his health and his wellness,” Fitzgerald, who took on the role of chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at the insurance and overall health care giant UnitedHealth Group this week, tells Fortune.

Joy Fitzgerald UnitedHealth
Courtesy of UnitedHealth Group

“And I remember a series of probably north of 15 years, of just a lot of bad days, seeing my grandmother cry, my cousins who were my age just go through so much bias, being shunned. And, in many instances, maybe even experiencing harassment, neighbors, social institutions, and even the church. And it hit me so hard.”

That’s been Fitzgerald’s motivating principle and what she hopes to bring in to her role at UnitedHealth Group. She was the DEI chief at drug giant Eli Lilly prior to this move. But at UnitedHealth, she hopes to help address inequities across a much larger swath of communities and consumers.

“I’ve seen the drug side, I’ve been a patient advocate, a trainer and led workstreams around trying to provide medical services,” she said. “But now I get an opportunity to work for an organization that is uniquely positioned to help advance our mission of making healthcare work for everyone.”

Just what would that look like? “It’s going to require us to create better partners within our communities and build trust as you think about the African American community,” she said. “A lot of what we’ve been working with is a long time, deeply embedded fear of the health care system.”

Addressing those societal buzzsaws will require more investments in addressing the medical conditions which disproportionately afflict Black people. For instance, Fitzgerald points out that UnitedHealth Group has invested $10 million in maternal health grants to not just for advocacy and education, but to meet patients where they are within their own communities.

Building equity, rather than just a superficial concept of diversity, into the organization’s very bones will be critical to fixing the broken links between health care organizations and the underserved communities which rely on them.

“When it relates to the business and our own internal practices and systems,” said Fitzgerald, “when it becomes part of our DNA, and when it’s felt not just by the senior leaders, but every last one of our 320,000-plus employees… When it’s just how we do business in a way where everyone can experience respect, value and can fully thrive? To me, that is nirvana.”

Improving equity through data

Ronald Copeland has had quite the journey during his storied career.

A 33-year veteran of the hospital consortium Kaiser Permanente (and a physician and life sciences expert), Copeland has taken on roles ranging from chief of surgery to executive medical director at the organization. The late Bernard Tyson, also a Black man who was the longtime chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, asked him to take on the diversity, equity, and inclusion role.

Ronald Copeland Kaiser Permanente
Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente

Copeland, like so many people of color who serve in these strategic corporate roles, has a very personal connection to diversity and equity initiatives. A son of Atlanta, his father had a ninth grade education and his mother a high school education. They moved to New York to afford Copeland the opportunities they could never take advantage of due to inherently racist structures.

And that’s guided his thinking on how to engage with Black communities on health inequity, including at a sprawling health system such as Kaiser which has historically spoken out against segregation in hospitals and other workplaces.

“I rewrote our strategy with an emphasis on, yes, we need to continue and honor the legacy and the improvement and diversity and representation,” he told Fortune. “But we also need to go through a learning journey to really understand how we aspire to be inclusive. What does that really look like? How do you measure that?”

Building diversity into the bones of the institution is one step. But aggregating medical data to inform the best ways to tackle the “social determinants of health” — those basic factors such as poverty, housing inequality, poor air, and little access to healthy foods — is the true project Copeland wants to expand, and which Kaiser has the means to achieve through its network of integrated health systems. That may mean funding local programs in consortium with community groups to tackle those issues while gathering demographic and medical data in order to hold the organization accountable.

For instance, last year, Kaiser announced $60 million in joint investments and $40 million in grant funding “to address systemic racism and lack of economic opportunities that have persisted for far too long and prevented communities of color, and especially Black communities, from achieving total health.”

But Copeland stresses that these relationships can’t be a one-off. They have to be lasting commitments in order to effect real change. “This is a learning and transformative journey for us,” he said. “So that’s what I wish that would happen in the next year or two years, if you will, in terms of a goal that shows we are successful in that transformation.”

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