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Good Health Goes Beyond Having A Doctor And Insurance, Says AMA’s Equity Chief

Dr. Aletha Maybank (Ted Grudzinski, courtesy of the American Medical Association)

Part of Dr. Aletha Maybank’s medical training left a sour taste in her mouth.

Her superiors told her not to worry about nonmedical issues affecting her patients’ quality of life, she said, because social workers would handle it. But she didn’t understand how physicians could divorce medical advice from the context of patients’ lives.

“How can you offer advice as recommendations that’s not even relevant to how their day-to-day plays out?” Maybank asked.

Today, Maybank is continuing to question that medical school philosophy. She was recently named the first chief health equity officer for the American Medical Association. In that job, she is responsible for implementing practices among doctors across the country to help end disparities in care. She has a full agenda, including launching the group’s Center for Health Equity and helping the Chicago-based doctors association reach out to people in poor neighborhoods in the city.

A pediatrician, Maybank previously worked for the New York City government as deputy commissioner for the health department and founding director of the city’s health equity center.

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez of Kaiser Health News recently spoke with Maybank about her new role and how health inequities affect Americans. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Can you tell me what health equity means to you, and what are some of the main drivers that are keeping health inequitable in this country?

The AMA policy around health equity is optimal health for all people.

But it’s not just an outcome; there’s a process to get there. How do we engage with people? How do we look at and collect our data to make sure our practices and processes are equitable? How do we hire differently to ensure diversity? All these things are processes to achieve health equity.

In order to understand what produces inequities, we have to understand what creates health. Health is created outside of the walls of the doctor’s office and at the hospital. What are patients’ jobs and employment like? The kind of education they have. Income. Their ability to build wealth. All of these are conditions that impact health.

Q: Is there anything along your career path that really surprised you about the state of health care in the U.S.?

There’s the perception that all of our health is really determined by whether you have a doctor or not, or if you have insurance. What creates health is much beyond that.

So if we really want to work on health and equity, we have to partner with people who are in the education space and the economic space and the housing spaces, because that’s where health inequities are produced. You could have insurance coverage. You could have a primary care doctor. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience health inequities.

Q: Discrimination based on racial lines is one obvious driver of health inequities. What are some of the other populations that are affected by health inequity?

I think structural racism is a system that affects us all.

It’s not just the black-white issue. So, whether it’s discrimination or inequities that exist among LGBT youth and transgender [or] nonconforming people, or if it’s folks who are immigrants or women, a lot of that is contextualized under the umbrella of white supremacy within the country.

Q: And what are some of your priorities?

A large part of my work will be how I build the organizational capacity to better understand health equity. The reality in this country is folks aren’t comfortable talking about those issues. So, we have to destigmatize talking about all of this.

Q: Are there any particular populations or relationships that you plan to focus on? 

The AMA excluded black physicians until the 1960s. So one question is, How do we work to heal relationships as well as understand the impact of our past actions? AMA definitely issued an apology in the early 2000s, and my new role is also a step in the right direction. However, there is more that we can and should do.

Another priority now is, How do we work, and who do we work with, in our own backyard of Chicago? What can we do to work directly with people experiencing the greatest burden of disease? How do we ensure that we acknowledge the power, assets and expertise of communities so that we have the process and solutions driven and led by communities? To that end, we’ve begun working with West Side United via a relationship at Rush Medical Center. West Side United is a community-driven, collective neighborhood planning, implementation and investment effort geared toward optimizing economic well-being and improved health outcomes.

Q: Is there anything else you feel is important to understand about health equity?

Health equity and social determinants of health have become jargon. But we are talking about people’s lives. We were all born equal. We are clearly not all treated equal, but we all deserve equity. I don’t live outside of it, and none of us really do. I am one of those women who were three to four times more likely to die at childbirth because I’m black. So I don’t live outside of this experience. I’m talking about my own life.

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