Updated on: September 28, 2020

What COVID Revealed About Healthcare Disparities

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Original story posted on: September 20, 2020

The pandemic disrupted the stability surrounding food, shelter, and sleep.

Because Healthfirst has long supported the health needs of underserved New Yorkers, we understand the impact of the social determinants of health (SDoH) on the underemployed, financially challenged seniors, and underrepresented minorities.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we had a glimpse at the lethal impact of healthcare disparities on those we serve.

The early data suggested that COVID is most lethal among individuals with the “triple threat” of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. In communities without access to healthcare and the ability for a lifestyle involving exercise and healthy eating, these underlying health conditions created the opportunity for a life-threatening virus to find hosts and cause devastation.

COVID also revealed a divide in both access to care and the basic need for housing, food, and mental health support. These are all SDoH that play a critical role in outcomes. These disparities are not new, and the realities of institutional racism have been exposed in communities ravaged by COVID.

The first driver of the health gap is food. Food is an important form of medicine and healthcare, and healthy eating is a learned skill. 

During the COVID crisis, we partnered with NowPow, an organization that maintains local community resource networks on its digital platform. When we learned that specific members needed food, we connected them to food sources on the NowPow platform.

To create better health outcomes, we also moved to provide healthy food through a multifaceted approach to “food as medicine,” with our hospital partners and within our own programs.

The second driver of the health gap is mental health, and how it can undermine the overall health of the underserved.

Imagine how COVID disrupted the stability surrounding food, shelter, and sleep. Stress levels were unthinkable. COVID, along with unemployment, racial injustice, and social isolation has raised anxiety and depression to high levels. Dr. Leonard Calabrese at the Cleveland Clinic has discussed how ongoing stress can decrease the body’s lymphocyte levels, making infection more likely.

Healthfirst has responded to a significant increase in calls from members experiencing anxiety and depression by increasing both our outreach and available help for our members. 

Driver number three is simply “healthcare access.”
People in underserved communities are more loosely linked to their primary care providers.  They tend to move frequently, due to housing instability. Finding health services during off hours can be difficult for those who work. Sometimes we hear from people that they are not valued or well-treated by their providers, and these relationships deteriorate.

By working with our partner hospitals, providers, and independent physician associations, Healthfirst creates opportunities for access. During the pandemic, we emphasized telehealth services and rolled out our mobile app, which allows members to search for nearby providers and essential services like food.

The pandemic has sharpened our understanding of the serious health disparities that exist among the underserved. They are unjustly lethal, and have consequences with rippling effects. Together, with policy, focus and determination, we can address the systemic racism and the lack of healthcare access among those whose voices are not always heard.

Sheryl Markowitz, LCSW, LISWs

Sheryl Markowitz is senior vice president of clinical operations at Healthfirst of New York City.

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