In recent years, the US healthcare industry has set its sights on health equity. Major insurance providers like UnitedHealth Group and Humana have hired Health Equity Officers; the American Medical Association hired its first Chief Health Equity Officer, and foundations The Kresge Foundation and Robert Woods Johnson Foundation have started their own equity campaigns. CMS has also required ACOs to create and submit health equity plans as part of the ACO REACH program.
This movement is warranted, as the United States is home to major in healthcare access and quality disparities. Racial and ethnic minority groups have the highest rates of illness and death across most major health conditions, and access to care is limited in many low-income communities.
While large organizations are stepping up, the race to health equity is far from finished. High COVID-19 mortality rates amongst Black and Latinx patients demonstrated that despite recent efforts to close the health equity gap, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Enter mission-driven entrepreneurs who are demonstrating an ability to build customized solutions that address the needs of underserved patients in a way that larger healthcare organizations cannot.
Dr. Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo, Dr. Suzette Brown, and Dr. Nicole Brown founded Strong Children Wellness with the belief that health outcomes are determined not by hospitals and health systems but rather the communities in which we live. So, they embedded their primary care practice into a trusted community organization in their hometown of Queens, New York. The business supports all patients but focuses on children with complex psychosocial needs.
Strong Children Wellness has built a unique and effective care model that would be difficult for a health system to replicate because Dr. Uwemedimo and her team are much closer to the healthcare challenges they are addressing. They live in the communities that they serve. They know which community-based organizations (CBOs) their patients’ trust, and they have leveraged this knowledge to better serve their patients. In other words, the team is uniquely positioned to address the healthcare needs of their community and improve health equity for a predominantly BIPOC and immigrant patient population.
Strong Children Wellness has created a type of reverse integrated care model with robust social and behavioral health services. If a patient has unmet educational needs, the team is able to connect them with a tutor that the CBO employs. Dr. Uwemedimo and her team have honed their care model and are now expanding via the Medicaid Health Home program. Through this program, Strong Children Wellness is delivering care to children on Medicaid with complex behavioral health needs.
The business is extending the reach of their care model and will serve patients across the five boroughs of New York City. It’s a shining example of three women that started addressing the health equity needs in their own community and are now able to scale their services to reach more individuals.
Clinical care is one of many ways to solve health equity challenges. However, it’s not the only tool. In the US, Black Americans make up 13% of the population but account for 5% clinical trials of participants. Latinos account for 18% of the population but represent less than 1% of trial participants. This indicates that pharmaceutical products are being created for populations that are not equally represented in critical phases of development.
Dezbee McDaniel, Co-Founder and CEO of CliniSpan Health, has seen the results of this lack of diversity firsthand. Dezbee learned that his aunt consistently experienced the rare side effects of a pharmaceutical drug that she was prescribed. While the clinical trial for this specific product may have had more than 5% Black participants, this experience pushed Dezbee to build a solution that improved racial diversity in clinical trials.
So, Dezbee founded CliniSpan Health in tandem with Rashaad Galloway and Dr. David Lipsitz. CliniSpan Health works with digital health influencers to educate followers about clinical trials and onboard them to CliniSpan’s platform. Once onboarded, users are able to search for clinical trials in their geography and enroll in relevant programs. CliniSpan has already delivered tangible results, diversifying clinical trials 3-4x above the industry standard. 47% of their users are African American, 40% are White, and 10% are Latinx. The company’s goal is to help millions of People of Color participate in clinical trials.
Dezbee’s journey started with a conversation with his aunt, and part of the reason he started CliniSpan is to make sure that his aunt’s story becomes less common. To be clear, the story is about a Black woman who consistently experienced the rarest side effects of a pharmaceutical product. CliniSpan is a company built by individuals who are looking to improve health equity for their own community in the context of clinical trials and pharmaceutical drug development. Large clinical research organizations have shown that they are ineffective at bringing BIPOC participants into the fold and are now turning to companies like CliniSpan to diversify their clinical trials.
Dr. Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo and Dezbee McDaniel (and their teams!) saw firsthand how the US healthcare industry has failed to improve healthcare quality, access, and affordability for their own communities. In response, they stepped up to fill the gaps left by the diverse set of stakeholders in healthcare.
Their work provides a blueprint to address health equity for underserved patient populations. Part of this blueprint entails supporting these founders to scale their solutions and reach more individuals. Support can come in many forms. Investors must provide financial resources, connections to other investors, and introductions to potential customers and/or strategic partners.
Most importantly, payers and providers must expand to work with early-stage health equity companies. This can manifest itself in a few ways (1) publish health equity priorities so that companies can customize their solutions accordingly (2) increase the number of pilots they run with early-stage companies (3) ease the process by which companies win pilots in the first place. While these actions alone won’t improve healthcare access, quality, and affordability for underserved patients, they’re a step in the right direction.