What are your plans for the Center for Health Equity?
I feel very blessed to have an amazing team leading this work at the department and we are all clear that we need to embrace a set of principles to guide our health equity work.
We need transparency around the data. Let’s make sure the information that we are collecting, presenting, and using represents the complexity of the lives that people live and tells their authentic stories. It is a two-way street. We have some data, others have different information, so let’s put it together to explain what we are noticing.
We need to elevate the voices and experiences of the people we serve. We need to figure out how to defer to and embrace community leadership. People have the inherent capacity to understand themselves, their circumstances, and the solutions to address their challenges.
Finally, our Health Agency staff need to have the skills to do this health equity work.
With these underlying values in place, we have identified an initial set of five compelling issues to address.
Infant Mortality is one of the five issues prioritized by the Center for Health Equity. Would you briefly discuss the other initial four health equity focus areas?
Yes. They are reducing inequities in STIs [sexually transmitted infections], reducing disproportionate exposures to hazardous materials in low-income communities and communities of color, building neighborhood coalitions to guarantee the well-being of residents with complex health needs, and ensuring cultural humility and linguistic competency across all Health Agency staff.
STI rates in LA County have increased dramatically in recent years with a disproportionate number of cases among men of color, LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning] persons, and African-American women. We need to narrow these gaps with novel coordinated action.
Regarding environmental justice, we need to address the disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards that are located and experienced in low-income communities, which are also predominately communities of color.
We intend to support and expand Health Neighborhoods to improve the care of residents with complex health issues. The Health Neighborhoods initiative, led by the Department of Mental Health, links population-based approaches with comprehensive service delivery models. There are already 13 Health Neighborhood coalitions that all work on different parts of the puzzle of complex health needs. We would like to see coalitions expanded and supported across the county.
Finally, to do this work, we all need to build our skills around respecting and honoring diversity. Our fifth focus area is an internal initiative to train all 35,000 Health Agency staff around cultural humility and linguistic competency.
What do you see as the role of primary care to further advance health equity?
I think that one of the most important strategies available for primary care providers right now, if they are not already doing this, is to figure out ways to allow their patients to have more of a voice. I am talking about creating a platform for patients to provide their feedback about the quality and effectiveness of the services that they are offered. Individual providers can advocate for this as well, such as by asking at team meetings, “what’s our way of really involving patients?”
Secondly, I think that primary care needs to make appropriate referrals to a host of non-clinical services. This may not specifically be the job of the clinician, but it needs to be the job of the practice to make sure that somebody is connecting patients with resources that are going to dramatically influence their patients’ well-being.
For instance, let’s say the clinician prescribes a medication that requires refrigeration, but the patient lives in a house where the electricity has been turned off. There should be someone in the practice that checks in with patients to make sure that the clinician’s expectations are realistic for the patient.
Drilling down, what do you recommend individual providers do to advance health equity?
I think cultural humility is critically important. This may mean embarking on a new learning journey, since many practitioners may not have been offered training in this area. Perhaps clinicians can work together to deepen their understanding of the cultural background that represents the diversity of the patients they are treating. This information can then be used to align practices to ensure that both employees and patients feel honored, respected, and heard.
Finally, I encourage providers to get involved in and support system, policy, and practice change that acknowledges the importance of addressing issues of implicit bias and discrimination, promotes healthy communities, and advocates for aligning resources with those in most need.
What are Public Health’s next steps?
We have been doing listening sessions across the County for the last few months and have been collecting unbelievably powerful information and wise counsel from the community residents and community-based organizations. We will use this information to support the community efforts to build equity, as well as to think about what our work is internally.
Public Health is also forming internal and broader external working groups around narrowing the health gap related to infant mortality and around STI inequities. We want health care providers, along with residents, to have an opportunity to influence the work and provide guidance on what makes sense. We appreciate the importance of working closely with the clinical community to make sure that our collective efforts resonate and can be supported by clinicians practicing across the county.
Dr. Ferrer, thank you for this interview.