CEO of Oak Street Health: When the pandemic finally subsides, let's not forget to address root cause of health disparities

  • Mike Pykosz, cofounder and CEO of Oak Street Health, reflects on how COVID-19 highlights disparities in American healthcare. 
  • Oak Street has implemented a new model to manage the health of its members, ideally meant to keep seniors healthy and save money.
  • Because of his work, Insider named Pykosz to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming healthcare.
  • Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

With more than 525,000 lives lost to COVID-19, the United States is dealing with loss that was unimaginable just one year ago. This number is staggering, heartbreaking, and, unfortunately, growing so high that it can be difficult for people to remember that each life lost belonged to someone’s mother, father, daughter, son, or friend. Although nearly anyone is susceptible to catching the virus, people of color have been cruelly and disproportionately impacted this entire year.

While the pandemic is shining a light on the deeply rooted health disparities in our country, there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the marvel of science and medicine, and we are all excited for the day that we can put COVID behind us and return to a semblance of normalcy. When that happens, we must not lose focus on the need to deliver quality, equitable healthcare for all Americans – no matter their race or zip code and socioeconomic status. 

These health disparities have existed well before COVID-19 did. More than a decade ago, I worked as a healthcare consultant in Chicago and was struck by the decades-wide gap in life expectancy between affluent, mostly white neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and poor, mostly black South-side neighborhoods just a few miles away. And this is still true today. Residents of Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood live an average of 30 years longer than those in Englewood, just nine miles away. This challenging year has exacerbated existing issues with access and care quality; and we’ve seen it in COVID death rates, access to testing and as I write this now, the vaccine rollout.

So how do we fix the underlying issues with the healthcare system once mask mandates are rescinded and social distancing is behind us?

First, we continue to focus on building trust with underserved communities, educating people who have not traditionally had access to the healthcare system around the importance of longitudinal preventative care. In particular, people of color have historical mistrust in healthcare and therefore often wait until an acute episode has occurred before engaging with the healthcare system. However, when they are cared for by someone who takes the time to get to know them, treats them like a person and not a number, puts in the hard work to build trust, and provides culturally sensitive and unbiased quality care, health outcomes will greatly improve and the gap can start to close. 

It also means that today’s healthcare providers need to roll up their sleeves and become part of the community they serve. Building partnerships with community leaders like Pastors and Alderman, and being a true pillar of a neighborhood in order to build relationships and educate patients and community members on important health issues.

Second, we continue structural changes to improve access. When the testing and vaccine sites set up in health care deserts and underserved communities are no longer needed they should be replaced with primary care centers. In Chicago, for example, there are mass vaccination sites held in neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, as designated by the City’s Protect Chicago Plus initiative. The effort includes partnerships with existing health care organizations along with proactive, targeted outreach by community organizations directly to community members to ensure the vaccine reaches Black and Latinx residents. This means that people who lack the resources like time or technology needed to secure a highly sought after appointment won’t be left behind. This strategy is working, and should be a playbook for cities across the country, both for vaccine distribution and for primary care when the pandemic subsides. 

Third, we must focus on innovation and nimbleness to adapt to the needs of individuals and communities. Traditional fee-for-service, one-size-fits-all healthcare organizations can’t sustainably serve people in an equitable, culturally competent, and compassionate way. When the pandemic first hit, many primary care providers across the country had to shut down, or at the very least greatly restrict patient access. Value-based care organizations that are focused on outcomes rather than volume of services rendered have the ability to provide as much proactive, preventive care, and adapt as needed to keep patients healthy. These types of organizations were able to greatly ramp the care they were providing while traditional organizations were pulling back.

We are at an inflection point in our country as it relates to healthcare, but nothing we have learned this year is new information. We have an opportunity to rethink how we offer healthcare to the patients who need it most, and build a better healthcare system that is more equitable and just for all.

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