VCU launches Office of Health Equity to address health, racial disparities

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Davina Efetie, Contributing Writer

VCU Health announced the launch of the Office of Health Equity on Sept. 14, which will be housed in the VCU School of Medicine on MCV campus.

Sheryl Garland, chief of impact health at VCU Health and the appointed executive director of the new office, said that she worked very closely with members of her team to “identify ways to integrate the principles of health equity into the core missions of the university and health system.”

She said she worked closely with current Senior Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the School of Medicine Kevin Harris, who holds a doctorate in public policy and administration. 

“We took our time to really try and understand and get the right people around the table to come up with ideas that we thought could make a difference,” Garland said.

Garland also said that it took her and her team members about a year of planning. She wanted to ensure that her team members all spoke the same language and understood what the core issues were from both a university, health system and community perspective.

“As a hub, we connect the talent and expertise that exists at the university and the health system with that of community organizations to develop and build partnerships focused on addressing health inequities and disparities. We hope our work will substantially reduce the negative impact of defined social determinants of health,” according to its website.

Anika Hines, assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy, said that health equity means that every person has equal opportunity to obtain their highest level of health. Hines also holds a doctorate in health and public policy.

“We should be encouraged if we think of health inequity as something that resulted from flaws in a system we created, rather than something that stems from the inferiority of a particular population,” said assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy Anika Hines.

These opportunities not only include having the privilege to visit the doctor but opportunities associated with “structural barriers,” according to Hines. Examples of structural barriers include people not having access to healthy food, exercise and obtaining an education that could position themselves to earn money and live a healthy, desirable life.

Hines said that race has become one of the most prominent structural barriers in health disparities because certain groups of the population aren’t adversely stressed disproportionately to the point where it affects their health.

“African Americans were slaves and that initial saying of being property and not humans has trickled down through the ways we have been treated over centuries,” Hines said. 

Hines said public policies that were set in place unequally treated minorities, such as the practice of red-lining, in which mortgage renters only allowed Black people to buy homes in certain communities.

“When you think about pollution or source pollutants, Black communities and other minorities are more likely to be sat next to those,” Hines said.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in health disparities as it adversely exposed groups of a population that had already been marginalized to being further marginalized, according to Hines.

“During the pandemic, disparities persisted as people of color had higher rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths and largely that’s because of their social exposures that were in jeopardy, such as shelter,” Hines said.

Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020 by the World Health Organization, there have been 22,544 reported cases in Richmond, among which Black people make up 52.2%, Hispanics or Latinos 13.2% and white people 28.9%, according to the Virginia Department of Health

Nearly 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Richmond have been among the Black and Latino communities while 28.9% of deaths were among white people. Throughout the pandemic, Black and Latino communities hospitalized with COVID-19 are more than five times the rate of white residents, according to the VDH.

“We should be encouraged if we think of health inequity as something that resulted from flaws in a system we created, rather than something that stems from the inferiority of a particular population,” Hines said.

The Office of Health Equity has collaborated with VCU Libraries, along with other departments, including the department of African American studies and the Humanities Research Center to curate programs such as the History and Health: Racial Equity series to combat racial inequalities in health which are offered to community members, students and staff members.

The office has also partnered with other aspects of VCU such as the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success, according to Garland.

Health equity is a matter of social justice and serious evaluation of the public policies that have manifested as health disparities over the centuries would help to combat the injustice, according to Hines.

“If we take deliberate action to support and provide resources to communities that have been systematically under-resourced and locked out of opportunities, then we can help move towards equity,” Hines said.

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