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Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall-Blake (far right) moderates a panel discussion with Dr. Antonia Villarruel (far left), Dr. Georges Benjamin (second from left) and Dr. Tami Benton (second from right). Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News.
Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall-Blake (far right) moderates a panel discussion with Dr. Antonia Villarruel (far left), Dr. Georges Benjamin (second from left) and Dr. Tami Benton (second from right). Photo: Jensen Toussaint/AL DÍA News.

How can Philly achieve health equity?

In a panel discussion with the President & CEO of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, three dedicated health professionals spoke on health equity.

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Philadelphia is taking an additional measure to achieve health equity for communities in the region, with the launch of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation's new Institute for Health Equity.

After officially making the announcement during a celebration event on March 30, an enlightening panel discussion looked at how Philadelphia is looking currently and what real health equity looks like.

Moderated by Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall-Blake, Independence Blue Cross Foundation President & CEO, the panel consisted of Dr. Antonia Villarruel, Professor & Dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association; and Dr. Tami Benton, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

When the topic surrounding health equity is broached, among the primary indicators that must be addressed are the challenges that make health equity not a current reality.

Dr. Benjamin noted four reasons why urban cities like Philly don’t have health equity: access to care, differences in the quality of care, how we seek care, and social determinants of health. 

“The fourth is that big buffer that fundamentally affects the other three,” he said.

Dr. Villarruel added that the pandemic has shown that all of these are interconnected, and not isolated events. 

Furthermore, some of the structural barriers that have impacted marginalized communities for generations continue to do so.

“We are still living with the sins of the past,” said Dr. Villarruel. “And I think in order for us to move forward, we have to address the structural-related issue.”

Whereas health equity implies physical health, mental health is another important component that must also be addressed. 

To this end, Dr. Benton highlighted that with the stigma that often surrounds mental health treatment, beyond the structural and racial barriers also lies interpersonal barriers.

“There is no health without mental health,” said Dr. Benton. 

To really achieve health equity for all, each panelist highlighted that partnerships are key. 

They noted things like commitment, dedication, good dialogue, problem solving skills, and give and take, and a keen understanding of the goal are some of the factors that can result in an effective, tangible partnership.  

Another effective approach, as Dr. Villarruel stated, is to understand that organizations can’t be everything for everyone.

She credited those behind the new Institute for Health Equity for identifying three specific areas — more digital resources, increasing cultural competence, improving maternal health care outcomes — and determining those as the areas in which they believed they can make an impact.

“You’re being deliberate,” said Dr. Villarruel. “You recognized that this is not a one-and-done … you are really looking at the Institute to think about how we can move forward.” 

To close, Dr. Marshall Blake asked each of the panelists to give their final thoughts on the effort to achieve health equity in the city.

Dr. Benjamin detailed the importance of allowing time to talk about different ideas and figure out ways to make them work. However, beyond that, also engaging with the people who are being most impacted.

“Go into the [neighborhood] and talk to people that actually have to live these lives and ask their solutions to these problems,” he said. “You will be amazed at what they’ll come back with.” 

In Dr. Benton’s case, she took a further opportunity to highlight the mental health aspect while a discussion about health is taking place.

This is especially true when combining the pandemic’s impact on mental health with the factors that have existed long before the pandemic.

“I really encourage all of us as we are advocating, to make sure that we don’t separate the mind and the brain from the body,” said Dr. Benton. 

“And the message needs to be about whatever we need to do to ensure that people get what they want, when they need it, at the right time and the right place. That’s an apolitical mantra that we all need to repeat to ourselves and to others,” she added. 

Dr. Villarruel noted that while the term “health equity” may not have been used until more recently, the work towards it has been ongoing for a long time.

Therefore, she went back to the importance of partnership and learning from those who have been doing this work for years and decades to determine some real, tangible solutions.

This will be a key toward advancing the efforts of the newly launched Institute for Health Equity. 

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