Insights

Health Equity: Lessons from AcademyHealth 2020

A closeup of a doctor in a lab coat checking items off of a list on a clipboard.

Health equity and the disparities within our health care system were the predominant themes at AcademyHealth’s 2020 Annual Research Meeting (ARM), which concluded on August 6. As usual, health services researchers gathered to disseminate the latest evidence across a broad range of health care topics and discuss the most pressing issues in health services research. However, what made this year different was that this ARM was entirely virtual. Over two weeks, about 4-4.5 hours of virtual plenaries, breakout sessions, poster presentations, and networking sessions happened each day.

The opening keynote, given by Ruha Benjamin, PhD, brought these topics to the forefront in her review of how big data and new technological applications can both advance our understanding of health and social problems while simultaneously perpetuating racism and inequality (such as systemic racism in AI technology and racism in risk adjustment tools). An opening panel in the second week of ARM further discussed structural racism in health services research (HSR), next steps for actionable change in HSR, and a need for metrics to ensure accountability for those changes.   

The timing of ARM—in the midst of the pandemic—resulted in viewing session topics through the lens of COVID-19. For instance, when discussing health equity, it’s important to not only consider pre-existing disparities but also account for how COVID-19 is exacerbating disparities and disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities. Similarly, in a session on workforce well-being, the speakers highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black healthcare workers in the U.S.

Another key takeaway from this year’s ARM was how the U.S. currently lacks the data infrastructure to allow for systematic, standardized, and readily available COVID-19 data to be collected and shared with the public. Sufficient data is a necessary component in the pandemic response and the need for interoperable data will only increase as the pandemic progresses.

Finally, as the pandemic continues to highlight disparities within our healthcare system, there will be growing emphasis on patients’ communities, their social determinants of health (SDOH), as well as the need for further SDOH-focused research. However, even before the pandemic, addressing the social needs of patients and their communities was an area our health care system lacked. As noted in an earlier blog post by RTI researcher Alison Banger, “The U.S. health care system was never designed to address the complex social needs [of patients].”

In conclusion, although attending ARM in-person is unparalleled, the platform was impressive and encouraged discussion among attendees. Which now more than ever, the need to virtually collaborate and electronically share research findings is increasingly important. Overall, we look forward to next year’s ARM as an opportunity to further share the work from our RTI colleagues and learn about ongoing initiatives from our partners.

This post originally appeared on Medical Care Blog.

A microscopic view of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

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