How Wellstar Is Tackling Health Disparities During the Pandemic and Beyond

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For Jeffrey Hines, M.D., his work has never been more relevant, or more meaningful. As the Medical Director for Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity at Wellstar Health System, as well as the Chief for the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Dr. Hines has long worked hard to chip away at inequities in our healthcare system. With a pandemic that’s proven especially tragic for Black and Brown people, and a growing movement for social justice demanding an end to structural barriers to healthcare, his voice is needed now more than ever. Thankfully, he’s at the perfect spot.

That’s because Wellstar Health System is a not-for-profit and safety net health system that’s dedicated to the communities it serves, which have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and longstanding systemic injustice. As one of the largest and most integrated healthcare systems in Georgia, Wellstar’s team of 25,000 healthcare professionals provides personalized care at 11 hospitals, 250+ medical office locations, nine cancer centers, 55 rehabilitation centers, 15 urgent care locations and more in metro Atlanta and beyond. But the health system’s impact goes far beyond the compassionate care its patients receive.

Wellstar is fully committed to driving lasting change through its Center for Health Equity (CHE), which galvanizes system-wide strategies, initiatives and programs to better address the treatment and prevention of issues disproportionately impacting vulnerable groups, particularly African American and LatinX populations.

“What the Center for Health Equity is doing is joining the talents we have internally at Wellstar with incredible external partners who do this work and do it well, to provide thought leadership and support grassroots action that address significant race-based social and health disparities,” Dr. Hines explains. That means working with nurses, religious leaders, local departments of health, activists, legislators, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and private companies to tackle some of the thorniest issues that exacerbate poor health outcomes for those most at risk.

“If you’re going to provide health equity, you need to get into the space of housing, because people who live in poor housing conditions have poorer health outcomes,” Dr. Hines says. “You need to get into the space of education, because we know one of the key determinants of health outcomes is education. You have to address unemployment and under-employment. You have to address issues of access to healthcare and health literacy, because those are key components of health inequity.”

One area that’s a key focus for the CHE is women’s health, and particularly maternal health. “Georgia has a Black maternal mortality rate that’s higher than many developing countries,” Dr. Hines explains. “There’s a multi-pronged approach that the Center is proud to be a part of, together with a local coalition, national organizations and one of our physicians in South Georgia. One of the successful outcomes has been that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation recently that extends Medicaid coverage up to six months post-birth, which is significant, because maternal deaths don’t only happen at the time of delivery.”

The CHE has also played a critical role during the pandemic, by partnering with the Georgia Department of Health to identify hotspots where COVID-19 infections are spiking, and send out mobile teams for pop-up testing in under-served areas. “We work closely with our Congregational Health Network to target local churches, so we can do tests for families on a day when they’re doing food distribution,” Dr. Hines says. “We also hand out a safety kit that includes masks, hand sanitizer and a resource list, in English and Spanish.”

That’s crucial, Dr. Hines says, because the pandemic has hit Georgia’s African American community so hard. Though they make up 31 percent of the state population, African Americans account for 51 percent of deaths there due to COVID-19. “Longstanding health inequities mean that some communities are at higher risk for certain health conditions like hypertension, chronic lung disease, obesity and diabetes,” Dr. Hines says. “We’re seeing that Black and Brown people, because of their higher rate of having these comorbidities for COVID-19, and having essential jobs and high-contact jobs, and because they are more likely to live in population-dense neighborhoods where there is higher use of public transportation, and because they are more likely to live in multi-generation homes, they not only have higher rates of infection, but they have a disproportionate share of the deaths.”

Solving those social inequities will go a long way toward erasing health disparities, during the pandemic and beyond, which is exactly what Wellstar is committed to doing. It’s a task made easier because the health system reflects its patient population, with a diverse workforce that is 82 percent women and 38 percent African American. That’s critical, Dr. Hines points out. “Data shows that people of color often have better outcomes when the people who provide their healthcare look like them and can really feel for what they’re going through.”

Diversity and inclusion are important not only to the health system, but to the many people it serves, both inside and outside the walls of Wellstar, Dr. Hines says. After the death of George Floyd, Wellstar hosted 42 listening sessions on the topic of racism, facilitated by leaders and hospital presidents—both virtual and in-person—to connect with and create meaningful dialogue with team members across the system. “The sessions provided time and space for team members to talk openly about racism and privilege,” Dr. Hines says. “I’m proud to be part of an organization that embraces diversity, inclusion and ending inequities within our system and throughout our communities, and that was not afraid to go out on a limb when people were hurting, and truly listen to them. That gives me hope.”



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