Master Class

Moving toward health equity in practice


Of all the medical professions, obstetrics and gynecology should be the strongest champion for equity in women’s health in this country and globally. The question is, what does this mean in the reality of 2017 and moving forward in the 21st century? What does it mean in the context of our own practices and in the landscape of current policy and politics?

Finding answers to these questions requires both a deep understanding of the meaning of health equity and a willingness to rethink the architecture and engineering of how we currently provide care.

The terms equity and equality are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually have quite different meanings. Imagine three women of different heights standing underneath the lowest branch of a tall apple tree. None of the three women are tall enough to pick an apple from the branch.

If we think about equality, we would assist each woman by giving her a box to stand on, and all three boxes would be the same size. This means that while the tallest woman will now be able to pick an apple, the medium-height woman may be able to touch but not pick the apple, and the shortest woman still may not be able to reach the apple at all.

However, if we think about equity, we’d acknowledge that each woman needs her own personalized box to be able to pick the apple. For instance, the shortest woman may need a box that is three times the height of the box used by the tallest woman.

Achieving true population health for all women requires that we similarly eliminate inequities by providing each patient with her own personalized care plan to help her reach and maintain her health.

Dr. Melissa A. Simon, the George H. Gardner Professor of Clinical Gynecology at Northwestern University, Chicago, and director of the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative

Dr. Melissa A. Simon

Health inequities, or disparities, are the differences that unequally burden certain groups. We typically think of common differences in demographics – mainly race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status – as the causes of disparities that present obstacles to good health. Indeed, disparities in health and health outcomes have been consistently demonstrated among women who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

Women from minority groups have higher rates of low birth weight, preterm birth, stillbirth, gestational diabetes and its complications, HIV, breast cancer mortality and cervical cancer incidence and mortality, infertility and response to fertility treatment, and maternal mortality.

Yet inequity runs deeper than racial/ethnic labels; disparities also are created by a host of other factors, from cognitive or physical disabilities to gender or sexual identity or orientation, one’s ZIP code, working environment, language, and health literacy.

More than ever, the art of medicine involves understanding how to meet every patient where she is – given her own context and beliefs and levels of support – so that every woman has the opportunity to stand on the right-sized box and pick the apple and thrive.

Our practices

Provider bias and stereotyping can impact health care and health outcomes, and it is important that we work to prevent this in ourselves and in our staff. This means not making assumptions. It means really listening to our patients in ways that we may not have before.

Women who have experienced health inequity may have unique barriers to success. Therefore, we must listen for cues and inquire about our patients’ environment and circumstances, as well as their partnerships and support – or lack thereof. We should then acknowledge and communicate that certain social and environmental factors may impact our ability to achieve a desired outcome.

How can we impact the diet of a patient with gestational diabetes, for instance, if we have not adequately communicated what medical nutritional therapy means in the context of her own culture and ability to access food? If she lives in a food desert or has food insecurity or lives in a violence-ridden neighborhood that keeps her from going to a grocery store regularly, we must think outside the box. Ob.gyns. and their clinical care teams can work with women who have less access to nutritious foods, or who have certain cultural food staples, to suggest recipes and grocery lists that make sense with respect to the types of stores they shop in or their cultural preferences.

When it comes to cancer prevention and treatment, how can we expect a woman to be compliant with screening if we cannot help her understand that she can get screening services for free with her health insurance? How can we help a woman who has coverage for, or access to, free screening but then no funding or coverage for a diagnostic test or cancer treatment? How can we support a patient with abnormal cancer screening results who hasn’t followed up for months because she is afraid to leave home without her partner’s permission?

Such questions and circumstances often involve what we call “social determinants of health,” and they force us to rethink how we can better deliver and optimize care. Re-engineering our practices for health equity may involve employing a more diverse practice staff, linking patients with community resources, modifying our practice hours to align better with working women’s schedules, or finding creative ways to discern patients’ motivating factors and then piggyback on these factors.

We may also need to modify how we approach the number of return visits that we request of women so that follow-up care aligns better with their ability to leave work or find childcare. Simply put, we should strive to set up our patients for success, not failure.

We can pointedly ask patients about the kinds of information and support they want and need. We might ask, for instance: What do you need, and how can I work with you, so that you can effectively monitor and control your glucose levels? How can I work with you to help you get onto a trajectory to stop smoking? How can I help you better understand what tests and procedures are covered under your insurance plan, or whether you qualify for free services?

Patients with lower health literacy may need teach-back methods to validate understanding, or messaging that is more focused and limited at any one time. Self-efficacy through patient-centered education and support should be our goal.

Practices and clinics may also be able to adapt elements of the National Cancer Institute’s multicenter Patient Navigation Research Program, in which community health workers or other “patient navigators” address women’s personal barriers to the timely follow-up of abnormal breast and cervical cancer screening results. Patient navigation through this program and similar projects, including programs that we’ve adapted for different racial and ethnic communities in and around Chicago, has reduced or eliminated delays in diagnostic resolution of gynecologic cancer (Cancer. 2015 Nov 15;121[22]:4025-34, Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2016 Aug;158[3]:523-34, Am J Public Health. 2015 May;105[5]:e87-94).

The patient navigation model is increasingly being adapted and used in a variety of contexts outside of cancer care as well. In a postpartum patient navigation program that we tested at Northwestern University’s Medicaid-based outpatient clinic, a navigator was hired to communicate with patients and support them between delivery and completion of their postpartum care. Patients were reminded through calls and/or texts of their postpartum visits and of the benefits of breastfeeding, effective contraception, and other postpartum practices.

The demonstration project was impactful: Women who were enrolled in the program were more likely to return for postpartum care, to receive World Health Organization Tier 1 or 2 contraception, and to have postpartum screening and vaccinations, compared with women who received care before the program began (Obstet Gynecol. 2017 May;129[5]:925-33).

Connections to our patients will help us to achieve health equity. This includes connections between the primary care we provide and the specialty care our patients sometimes require, both inside and outside of our field. We may refer a patient to an oncology team, for instance, and in the process, unwittingly transfer her care such that other conditions that we’ve been managing – hypertension, depression, or diabetes – fall by the wayside.

Instead, we have to re-engineer our processes so that we maintain personalized connections back to these patients. For example, the referring ob.gyn. could develop and send to the oncologist or gynecologic-oncologist a care plan that includes the patient’s comorbid conditions and how they could be managed. This would allow for clearer communication.

Our communities

As ob.gyns., we have a common goal of championing health equity and true population health for every woman, regardless of whether she lives in rural, urban, or suburban America and regardless of whether she has conservative or liberal values. To do so, we must extend ourselves beyond our own practices.

In a committee opinion on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises that ob.gyns. take a number of actions to increase health equity. These include raising awareness about inequity and its effects on health outcomes, promoting quality improvement projects that target disparities, working with public health leadership, and helping recruit ob.gyns. and other health care providers from racial and ethnic minority groups (Obstet Gynecol 2015;126:e130-4).

In Chicago, where 1 out of 5 people lives in poverty and 1 out of 10 lives in deep poverty, we are still in our infancy in combating health inequities. However, with partnerships between academic institutions, departments of health, and other organizations across various sectors, we are beginning to move the needle on these entrenched health inequities.

For example, in 2007, there was a 60% difference in breast cancer mortality between black and white women in Chicago. This disparity sparked the development of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force and a series of on-the-ground patient navigator programs, along with several key policy changes and new state laws.

State actions included requiring quality reporting on mammography and increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate for mammography to the Medicare rate. Nationally, beneficial changes were made to Medicare’s quality metrics and to the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. All told, through a combination of studies and initiatives focused on improving knowledge, trust, access to care, and quality of care, we have been able to decrease the breast cancer mortality gap by 20%.

We also have a role to play in nurturing and developing a workforce that better aligns with our evolving demographics. This involves redesigning how we plant seeds of opportunity among high school students, undergraduates, and young medical students, and how we seek job applicants. Moreover, when we help people get to the next step in their careers, we need to make sure there is continuous support to retain them and help propel them to the next level.

We should think creatively to establish programs or launch initiatives that can help level the playing field for all women. For example, I created a Massive Open Online Course called “Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare” as a free workforce development pipeline program. It is accessible on a global platform ( and is one example of how we as ob.gyns. can leverage our skills and resources.

Along the way, we also need to train our students and residents – and ourselves – to be more familiar with, and articulate about, health care policy. We need to understand how policy is made and modified and how we can be good communicators and thought leaders.

Right now, our ability to articulate our patients’ stories to policy makers and to the public seems underdeveloped and undertapped. The onus is on us to write and speak about how all women must have the opportunity to not only access care but to access high-quality care and preventive services that are important for full health. Providing health equity isn’t about giving someone a handout, but about giving her a helping hand to take control of her health.

Achieving health equity will involve changing our approach to research. If medical research on women’s health continues to be dominated by studies in which participants are homogeneous and from mainly white or well-resourced populations, we will never have output that is generalizable. As practicing ob.gyns., we can look for opportunities to advocate for diversity in research. We can also acknowledge that, for some women, there is historically-rooted distrust of the health care system that serves as a barrier both to obtaining care and enrolling in trials.

By meeting women where they are, and by tailoring their individual boxes as best we can – in research, in workforce development, and in clinical care delivery – we can work toward solutions.

Strategies for achieving women’s health equity

• Modify office hours/dates to allow flexibility for women who have challenges scheduling childcare and time off from work.

• Ensure handouts, educational materials, and all communications are at appropriate health literacy levels.

• Acknowledge and understand an individual woman’s barriers to care, including social determinants of health, and create a care plan that is achievable for her.

• Learn about and refer women to local community resources needed to overcome barriers to care, such as childcare, social services support, support services for intimate partner violence, and substance abuse counseling.

• Examine office processes to optimize the number of visits women have to attend for a particular health issue. Are there ways to explain results and next steps in a care plan without having to make her come back for an office visit?

Dr. Simon is the George H. Gardner Professor of Clinical Gynecology at Northwestern University, Chicago, and director of the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative. She is a member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, but the views expressed in this piece are her own.

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