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Crystal Ashby authors article on Independence’s commitment to health equity

Crystal Ashby

This article by Crystal Ashby, executive vice president, chief people, DEI, and communications officer at Independence Blue Cross, originally appeared in Savoy Magazine on August 7, 2023.

Our Commitment to Health Equity

Many factors impact our overall health, from our family history to our lifestyle choices to where we live and work. But we also need to acknowledge that our health is shaped by the resources we do —and perhaps more critically don’t — have access to. As the Kaiser Family Foundation reports, research suggests that social determinants of health — things like nutrition, housing, education, and transportation — “are the primary drivers of health outcomes.”

Having recently moved to Philadelphia, I am seeing this at play here. We’re home to some of the world’s best health systems, yet the county ranks last of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties for health outcomes. Resources — and health outcomes — vary greatly even in adjacent neighborhoods. And if you look at life expectancy for people living in, say, Society Hill versus Strawberry Mansion — two neighborhoods less than five miles apart — there’s a 20-year difference.

We cannot tolerate these shocking disparities, and it is the responsibility of leading organizations in health care to both understand and close the gap. Across Independence Health Group (Independence), we are focused on addressing the root causes of health inequity and creating healthier outcomes. We do this by analyzing the underlying causes while partnering with and investing in organizations focused on maternal health, preventative care, cancer screenings, mental health, care for seniors, and more.

Establishing Leadership

Like every other relevant and sustainable change, the buy-in must start at the top if health care institutions are going to successfully advance health equity. Boards and executive leadership teams must set the example of commitment and follow-through. Having dedicated teams and organizations pursuing health equity shows ownership and accountability and sends a signal that the organization is all-in.

More than 30 years ago, Independence established a board committee focused on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, a pioneering effort. In 2021, we created the role of Executive Director of Health Equity to lead a team focused on equitable health for our members. Our corporate Foundation was addressing health equity before it was the cause du jour, culminating in the creation of its Institute for Health Equity in 2022.

Convening Stakeholders

Collaboration is powerful. To impact health equity, organizations must set aside differing priorities and even competitive pressures and work together. They must embrace the bigger objective: changing this landscape one life at a time.

Independence has 85 years of leadership in our market in collaboration with health care providers, government agencies, and more. We are in a unique position to act as a convener. Of particular significance is our work with leading health systems in Greater Philadelphia on an initiative called Accelerate Health Equity, which tests and scales promising interventions to reduce disparities. Critically, we are also working with health systems to end the practice of using race-based clinical decision tools.

Listening to and Supporting the Community

Perhaps the most important step to ending racial disparities in health care is to listen to the voices and learn from the experiences of those people most affected by them.

Last fall, Independence hosted our inaugural Health Equity Summit, bringing together industry leaders and our members to discuss health equity and structural racism. This feedback, paired with ongoing input from our Health Equity Community Advisory Board, is helping us refine our health equity strategy with the community’s voice in mind.

We’ve also formed partnerships with community-based organizations that are closing gaps in care. In Philadelphia, we’re working with and Cayaba Care, two minority-led maternal health organizations.  And we’ve taken a leadership role in developing and supporting strategies that address maternal health disparities nationwide.

Each of these programs and initiatives is inspired by our company-wide belief that everyone should have access to care that enables them to be as healthy as possible. It will take all of us – leaders in health care, business, and the community – to drive measurable and lasting change.

Crystal E. Ashby is Executive Vice President, Chief People, DEI, and Communications Officer for Independence Health Group