Back in July 2020, Dr. Suzet McKinney, CEO of the Illinois Medical District, joined Outcome Health to discuss social determinants of health and health disparities facing communities of color in Chicago and across the nation. As we honor Black History Month, we are sharing her important insights and message with the Outcome Health community. 

The following transcript is not verbatim but instead captures the key messages and sentiments from Dr. McKinney. 

Hetal at Outcome Health: Thank you Dr. McKinney for joining us today. Can you share a bit about your background with the folks tuning in? 

Dr. McKinney: I am CEO of the Illinois Medical District. A little bit about my background – I am a native Chicagoan, born and raised on the South side of Chicago. I’m a product of Chicago public schools (Whitney Young high school), and I returned to Chicago after college and began my career in public health right after the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. I think my entire life we have heard this narrative about the South and West sides being the two most vulnerable areas of our city. Now as CEO of the Medical District, I feel so fortunate to have a platform where my work will directly impact and improve the residents of Chicago and most especially those on the south and west sides. 

Black Women in Healthcare

Hetal: Dr. McKinney, you’re a leader in the field of public health. You serve on numerous boards, have taught at Harvard and are the only Black female CEO of any major medical district in the country. It’s an impressive record. We’d love to hear about your experience as a Black woman and leader in healthcare. Can you share insight into your experience and the issues you’ve faced? 

Dr. McKinney: I have had a fantastic career thus far, however my career and experience have not been without challenges. I have had great mentors and advisors who’ve been able to walk alongside me in both my educational and career goals. As a Black woman and a woman of color who sought to be in a leadership role, I have always felt that I’ve had to work a little bit harder, that I had to prepare myself a little bit more than my non-Black counterparts just to reach the same level of opportunity and achievement that they had all reached. But my choice is not to dwell on the negative experiences and instead to turn them into positive motivation and to continue to propel my career forward but also to use them as learning opportunities not just for myself, but for young people, especially young women, who are coming behind me in the field of public health. 

Examples of Health Disparities

Hetal: Dr. McKinney, many of us have seen headlines and articles regarding racial health disparities, but can you share more insight into what health disparities are? 

Dr. McKinney: Health disparities are situations that occur when people don’t have adequate access to healthcare and, as a result, suffer increased inequalities in not just their healthcare access but also their healthcare outcomes. 

When I talk about health inequities, I often use this anecdote: When you are concerned about where dinner is going to come from, that makes you less concerned about making it to your doctor’s appointment. 

Hetal: Can you share the top issues/ health disparities affecting the Black community both here in Chicago and nationally? 

Dr. McKinney: The health disparities that we see in Chicago are not unlike those we see across the country. You’ve probably been hearing a lot about health disparities in the news recently because the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted the existence of these healthcare disparities. Traditionally what we see among the Black community are higher incidence of  chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma – and we’re seeing them in other cities across the country as well. I think with regards to disparities in housing – and not having access to the same types of housing that many of our non-black counterparts might have – contribute to many of these healthcare disparities. 

Why Are Social Determinants of Health Important?

Hetal: What are the key initiatives you and your team are working on to address social determinants of health and healthcare disparities here in Chicago? 

Dr. McKinney: The work that we do at the IMD is always viewed through an equity lens. We want to make sure that every initiative includes a community benefit component, such as access to well-paying jobs, career advancement opportunities and educational resources. One of our partnerships that I’m most proud of is West Side United (WSU). WSU is a collaborative of local healthcare, educational and community partners whose goal is to close life expectancy gaps that have a staggering impact on west side residents. For instance, a resident of West Garfield Park has a life expectancy of 69 years, while just a few miles east, a resident of the more affluent South Loop has a life expectancy of 85 years. This staggering 16-year gap is an example of how for some, a zip code can determine quality of life. Even worse, the largest life expectancy gap between two neighborhoods in one US city is right here in Chicago. A Streeterville resident can expect to live about 90 years, while a resident of Englewood has a life expectancy of just 60 years. WSU is working diligently in their mission to improve community health and economic wellness on the west side by addressing the root causes of health disparities, with the goal of closing these staggering gaps in life expectancy.

COVID-19 and Racial Health Disparities

Hetal: We’ve seen in recent reports that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 compared to other groups. We know that you were featured on CNN to discuss this issue, but can you share with our audience how health disparities are shaping the impact of COVID-19? 

Dr. McKinney: What we are seeing with COVID-19 is when you have someone who is suffering from heart disease, hypertension, asthma, or perhaps diabetes – and then you overlay a severe case of COVID-19 on top of that – what results is even more severe illness. There are a number of theories around which systems in the body COVID-19 affects, and I think the research there is still very new, so we don’t have clear scientifically based theories at this point – but we do know that it does make for more serious illness when you overlay COVID-19 on top of these chronic health conditions. Because we see a higher incidence of these chronic health conditions in Black and Brown communities, I think that it is really highlighting those disparities now in the age of COVID. 

One of the things that is very clear to me and what I hope policy makers, and government leaders, and other decision makers are beginning to understand is that the problem that’s amplifying the healthcare disparities today is COVID-19. But if we don’t do something to address the systemic issues that led to the healthcare disparities in the first place, tomorrow it may not be COVID-19 that amplifies them – it’ll be something else. 

As a society, we really need to be doing more to address the systemic issues: access to affordable housing, access to healthcare, and those other things that we consider to be along the spectrum of social determinants of health.  

Hetal: Many organizations and individuals are waking up to the systems and structures in place to disenfranchise communities of color. What has this current national reckoning meant for you and what are you hoping to see come from it? 

Dr. McKinney: What we are seeing nationally now is that business, companies and orgs across the country are beginning to recognize that communities of color are disenfranchised and they are all looking for ways that they can help – and I think that’s fantastic. Cookie cutter or band aid solutions are ineffective. We need to come together as a society to  inspire an all-systems approach to health equity, or the voices that are being amplified today will fade to the background yet again. A good friend of mine says, “Diversity is being asked to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance. But equity is being allowed to select the music.” 

As we say in the emergency preparedness community, “Nothing for us without us.” These communities [of color] have to be included in these conversations and in the decisions around new programs, new services and new offerings.

Hetal: As we wrap up today Dr. McKinney, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with us?

Dr. McKinney: What’s critically important is that first we all have to educate ourselves on what the issues are. And then we have to be intentional about our efforts to address those issues. This is not something that healthcare is going to be able to solve on its own, and it’s not something the government is able to solve on its own, but it is something where multiple stakeholders and multiple disciplines of industry will have to come together. We have to be intentional about these discussions and we have to operate from a position of knowledge and that requires that we educate ourselves. Sometimes it will be hard to hear the truth but we have to bold and be courageous with that. 

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