Health Equity and the Boardroom
Black directors have formed an organization focusing on healthcare inequities in Black communities.
Joe Wilkins, MBA, FACHE, is a director of QuidelOrtho and Providence Health & Services, managing director of JW Healthcare Insights and senior advisor of THEO Transformation Advisory. He is also a founding member and board member of the Black Directors Health Equity Agenda (BDHEA), an organization whose mission is to advance work in ways that are likely to result in long-term sustainable reductions in health disparities. We spoke to him about the organization’s mission as well as why it is important for directors to bring a health equity perspective to their governance roles and why it is vital for board members to monitor the physical health of their own companies.
Private Company Director: Can you tell us a bit about the BDHEA, its mission and purpose, and what it seeks to accomplish for directors and boards?
Joe Wilkins: BDHEA is a group of Black corporate board directors, executives and thought leaders — mainly from healthcare, but also encompassing areas such as financial services, angel investing, communication and government. One of our founders, Dr. Regina Benjamin, was a U.S. surgeon general. Our shared goal is to eliminate health and wellness disparities among Black communities and produce long-term, sustainable results that create health equity. We envision a state of affairs where every person has the opportunity to achieve their full health potential.
PCD: Can you tell us about the BDHEA Playbook? Who was it developed for and how does it serve directors?
JW: We actually have two playbooks out now that we developed for BDHEA members with Deloitte Consulting, one on health equity and the newest on environmental, social and governance issues. Our first playbook, Prioritizing Health Equity in the Boardroom, was written to help directors understand and seize the opportunities before them. They have a meaningful role to play in achieving equitable health outcomes both within and outside their organizations. We want to guide them as they bring a health equity lens into their governance roles and encourage them to more directly influence health equity conversations.
The second playbook, Health Equity's Essential Role in ESG Conversations, was created to help directors assess their organizations' health ecosystems. ESG remains critical to achieving our financial, operational and strategic goals. This planning guide directs board action across four domains: organization, offerings, community and ecosystem. That encompasses a broad range of tasks from drawing up boardroom diversity targets to establishing targeted health equity interventions in pilot programs. We just released a companion action guide, Accelerating Health Equity and Business Resilience through Decarbonization, specifically addressing how climate change policies can support Black communities.
PCD: Why is it important that directors bring a health equity lens into their governance roles? What are the negative consequences if they fail to do so?
JW: First and foremost, there is a business imperative to health equity. Disparities are driving the high cost of care. We’ve identified eight priority areas that disproportionately impact Black communities: infectious diseases, maternal and infant health, cardiovascular diseases, data and algorithms, diabetes, cancer, obesity and rare diseases. Directors who stress health equity can steer their organizations in the direction the market demands. In doing so, directors can improve health outcomes for Black populations.
Addressing these disparities makes us better community partners and corporate citizens. If we fail to act, our communities will continue to suffer and people will die when they could otherwise enjoy a better quality of life. Take COVID, for example. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black populations were twice as likely to be hospitalized than white or Hispanic populations. They also died at a 60% higher rate. A hospital stay for COVID can cost as much as $73,000. Through our work on the health equity playbook, we found that reducing hospitalizations to the majority benchmark could save patients $13 billion annually. Eliminating disparities can’t be optional.
PCD: In what ways is it beneficial for board members to be cognizant of the overall health of their organizations and the people in them?
JW: Healthy organizations function better. Serving the health needs of a community is easier when you view them through an ESG lens, because it results in engaged employees who feel supported in what they do. Now, this also requires investment in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, training and IT modernization. But as a direct result, patient-provider relationships prosper, and that in turn helps our healthcare organizations to bring better, more affordable care to the community.
PCD: Is health equity something that should be directly connected to an organization’s ESG initiatives? If so, how can that connection be strengthened?
JW: Absolutely. We believe that greater representation across all workforce levels, for example, leads to more culturally competent care. Directors can play a key role in realizing this ESG initiative by instituting more rigorous recruitment and retention policies. They’re also in the position to kick off important conversations that set the stage for action. If you want to strengthen the ESG-health equity connection, start by assessing how your organization generates or detracts from the health and well-being of your workforce, offerings, communities and ecosystem.
PCD: Why is a focus on health equity something that should be especially important for Black directors?
JW: Black directors have firsthand experience, in and outside the workplace, grappling with the challenges that affect Black populations as a whole. The health problems that affect the Black community have impacted our friends, families and colleagues as well as our patients. We cannot stand idle once we realize that infant mortality is twice as high for Black infants compared to white infants. That’s just one health inequality we have to face every day. Black directors have the influence to make health equity a reality. We created the playbooks to further that goal, and our organization is here to reverse that tragic trend. There’s no better time for directors to grasp the vision and take the lead.