Healthcare companies hire their first chief health equity officers

A a slew of high-profile healthcare companies like Teladoc and CVSHealth have hired their first chief health equity officers this year as the industry grapples with troubling health disparities. But people in these prominent positions — and those who hire them — say they are still defining the role and in some cases fighting for buy-in and resources from others in their organizations.

The role has gained traction over the past two years as the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on minority communities and amid social movements, including the response to the killing of George Floyd. Chief health equity officers at tech companies were hired in spades with a broad mandate: to help tech companies promote diversity and inclusion in their own tech workforces, and then help them reach a more diverse patient pool. It’s work that many of those hired have done for years behind the scenes. But while companies now want to elevate this work to a C-suite role, they’re still figuring out exactly how to do it.

“Because they don’t understand how to define a strategy and the complexity of it and what’s involved, they think they can just throw together some cookie-cutter approach and then have health equity officers come in and check a box and then sign it,” said Mary Stutts, who advises healthcare clients on equity at Real Chemistry. “And health equity officials are saying, ‘You didn’t even build it from the ground up.’

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Stutts, whose clients include pharmaceutical companies trying to recruit more diverse clinical trial participants, pointed to recruitment as an example. Reaching a wider pool of potential participants isn’t just about getting the message out more widely—it’s about ensuring that trial parameters like BMI cutoffs or limited study site locations don’t inadvertently exclude minority patients.

Simply hiring a chief health equity officer won’t automatically solve these problems, especially if companies don’t actually give them adequate staff, money and authority to manage key metrics like whether a drug or digital health product is actually improved the health of patients, said Stuts.

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“Until recently, it was unprecedented to have a fully dedicated health equity team in technology, or to have these experts sitting at the executive table,” said Ivor Horne, chief health equity officer at Google. Horn leads a team of health experts who advise other Google product teams such as YouTube, FitBit and Cloud. Back in September, Horn told STAT that he was pioneering a new product design structure at Google that involved health equity experts in the development process as early as possible.

But where some companies go wrong is “creating roles around the subjective that are mostly about virtue signaling, instead of using those roles to create accountability and really empower the people in those roles to drive business metrics,” said Neil Shah , chief medical officer at virtual fertility clinic Maven, which also recently hired its first director of health equity, Dawn Godbolt. Godbolt was not available for an interview by the time of publication.

Recruiting pages and job descriptions paint a picture of an emerging executive position that does not yet have standard qualifications, objectives or certifications. Some require public health expertise, while others seek human resources skills. In some companies, these leaders are single-handedly tasked with building equity throughout the business from the ground up. In others, they are consulted after products are largely designed, as a last stop before new technology is released, experts told STAT.

“If you take even 10 companies and put them in a room and have their chief health equity officers say, ‘What’s your job description,’ you’ll get 10 different answers,” whose goals may include addressing gaps in the social determinants of health , gender and ethnicity, among others, said Teresa West, who leads commercialization at Patient Discovery, which develops technology to help patients share information with their care teams and also sells business analytics to providers. Shah also noted that some companies have not hired chief health equity officers but continue to call on minority workers “ad hoc as subject matter experts” — which he called “at best exhausting and at worst — traumatic”.

The reporting structure for chief health equity officers also varies widely — some report to a chief medical officer or chief health officer, and others align with internal diversity, equity and inclusion programs, Stutts said. A diverse workforce can, of course, help a company create more comprehensive products. But according to Stutz, the primary role of a healthcare equity officer should be a high-level strategic position if a company is serious about influencing business metrics.

At Teladoc, the startup’s chief healthcare investment officer, Saranya Loerer, reports to the company’s chief medical officer, who reports to the CEO. Loehrer designed the company’s first enterprise strategy to address health equity, which includes gathering more granular data about customers to get a better idea of ​​where their needs are and aren’t being met. At Google, Horn reports to Karen DeSalvo, who leads Google’s health efforts.

Part of the challenge is that each company tries to deal with the equity problem in a different way, such as by promoting more social programs or diversifying the technical staff, Lohrer said. Although she said Teladoc regularly includes her in other C-suite and board meetings, “I really think the industry is moving more from a basic level of mastery and understanding of what health equity is to how to achieve it .”

“People generally understand and purposefully believe that this is the right thing to do,” Lohrer told STAT.

“What it really takes is thinking [equity in] all of those things — in addition to technology, in addition to policy, in addition to engineering,” she said. “I think the opportunity is to create a more cohesive, comprehensive approach to addressing health equity and all the ways that all these different pieces intersect.”

This story, part of a series on health technology for underserved populations, was supported by a USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship.

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