Although industry leaders have made progress in addressing some health care disparities, it is clear that many inequities remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities, which some experts have discussed at 2022 Alaska Health Reform Conference.
Get the latest country-specific healthcare industry intelligence delivered to your inbox.
Veronica Sandoval, director of Genentech’s Chief Diversity Office, said Genentech studied epidemiological data, including hospitalization rates for blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Alaska Natives during the pandemic.
“They were hit hard,” Sandoval said. “When you looked at the hospitalization rates, they were the ones who were hospitalized the fastest and dying at the fastest rates.”
Celeste Hodge Growden, president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, said the pandemic has also exacerbated economic disparities among working-class Alaskans. Workers who had a job considered essential were taking daily risks for wages that were not sustainable, Growden said.
“We know that the wages of people working in these jobs during the pandemic were ridiculous,” Growden said. “These are grocery store workers, people in health care facilities, [workers] who care for our children, day care providers and many more. Many of the so-called essential jobs are the lowest paid, and these jobs are disproportionately held by people of color. Those wages need to increase.”
Those workers also had to work overtime during the pandemic, making it difficult for them to meet their personal living demands, Growden said.
“Workers often work more than one full-time job in multiple businesses, requiring not 40, but 80 hours a week,” Growden said. “It makes it difficult to take care of the family, especially the children and the elderly. In Anchorage, working just 40 hours a week requires a wage of at least $21 an hour. With inflation, that’s probably closer to $25 an hour. Many jobs in retail and healthcare pay less than $20 an hour, and that’s just not enough for people to survive.”
Cheryl Dalena, co-chair of Healthy Alaskans, the organization said recently in partnership with the Committee for Healthy and Just Communities to try to address health equity issues.
“Now that might be a baby step,” Dalena said. “But we knew we had to start somewhere. We have partnered with the committee and they are working to achieve the goals of the Healthy and Just Communities Strategic Plan, which received [state] funding to address health equity and the impact of COVID. They aim to work directly at the community level. They aim to hear from people who experience and live these differences.
Growden said the Alaska Black Caucus is also working with partners on community outreach efforts.
“The most important thing is to develop real relationships and partnerships with the communities you’re trying to serve,” Growden said. “Service providers need to think outside the box and reach out directly to people in these communities, their homes, churches and wherever they are. Social service agencies must also prioritize hiring people who reflect the communities they serve.’
Sandoval said Genentech recently created External Council for Advances in Inclusive Research to help address equity issues.
“These are 14 prominent clinicians, researchers, researchers and patient advocates across the country who range from oncology, ophthalmology, neurology, law, lung cancer, [and] Alzheimer’s [fields] to help us think in terms of diversity, inclusion and equity,” Sandoval said. “They can help us think about the barriers and how we can really, as an industry, make sure that the future of clinical trials includes diversity, inclusion and equity, because that’s where it’s going to start in terms of scientific innovation.”