ALBEMARLE — Over the last five years, Atrium Health, which serves Stanly County and the greater Charlotte area, has put increasing focus on “health equity.” And in 2021, all this work paid off, with the American Hospital Association choosing Atrium as its Carolyn Boone Lewis Equity of Care Award winner. Health equity is a recent movement in the health care field aimed at reducing disparities in health outcomes regarding race, sex and other demographic categories.
According to the AHA, the award “is an annual recognition of outstanding efforts among hospitals and health care systems to advance equity of care to all patients and to spread lessons learned and progress toward diversity, inclusion and health equity.” The award is only awarded to one health provider per year across the nation, plus two honorable mentions. During his acceptance speech, Atrium CEO Eugene Woods indicated he was proud to share a stage with others who were able to “leverage their organizations as platforms for social justice and change.”
“Amidst the battle against this virus, this country also faced another pandemic — racial injustice — a pandemic that there’s no vaccine to cure,” Woods said, adding that Atrium was able to get more than 1,000 of its employees to mobilize for a #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives push.
But health equity has not been without controversy. Critics say health care resources should be focused on curing patients, not on trying to ensure “social justice” and a correct balance between the races and sexes for illnesses.
The Centers for Disease Control, which under President Joe Biden has embraced this trend, recently released its “Health Equity Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication.” The guide was immediately criticized by conservative websites, like National Review, for recommending replacing words like homeless with “persons experiencing unstable housing,” illegal immigrant with “people with undocumented status,” biological male with “assigned male at birth,” and gendered pronouns like “he” or “she” with the singular “they.”
Atrium received the national award in large part due to its focus on equity in how it used resources to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Community Immunity for All” program, which had a testing van that would target “communities of color,” was a spotlight of this effort.
“By establishing our own Vaccine Equity Taskforce, we could best identify ways to address disparities and access to testing, and now to life-saving vaccines,” said Kinneil Coltman, senior vice president and Atrium Health’s chief community and social impact officer, in the release. “To receive this tribute from the American Hospital Association is a true testament to Atrium Health’s longstanding commitment to health equity, even in the wake of the most difficult times.”
SCJ asked Atrium in an email whether it was fair to dedicate certain resources only to non-white residents. SCJ also asked if it have any programs dedicated to alleviating health disparities when the white population is the group affected such as opioid overdose deaths, which disproportionately affect the white population. The Kaiser Family Foundation showed 1,460 opioid overdose deaths among whites out of 1,817 overall in North Carolina in 2019. This is 80% of the deaths despite non-Hispanic whites being 60% of the population. Atrium did not respond to this line of questioning.
Atrium is also celebrating an increase in its “supplier diversity.” An Aug. 5 press release announced it had partnered with former L.A. Lakers superstar Magic Johnson and his food supply company, SodexoMAGIC.
“Having a strong supplier diversity program is an important part of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as our effort to improve economic health and mobility in the communities we serve,” said Les Maginley, vice president of supplier diversity for Atrium Health.
Atrium says it “more than tripled its Minority Tier I spend between 2018 and 2020 and more than doubled its number of diverse suppliers. It projects to spend over $100 million per year with minority suppliers by 2026.”
Johnson said, “SodexoMAGIC is excited to partner with Atrium Health.”
SCJ asked Atrium why hiring a company run by a retired multimillionaire athlete from Los Angeles helps the citizens of Stanly County more than hiring a local company without regard to race but did not receive an answer.
In 2016, Atrium signed on to the AHA’s “Equity of Care Pledge.” By 2019, it was already an honorable mention for the AHA’s Boone award. In its press release at the time, Kinneil Coltman, then vice president and chief diversity officer of Atrium Health, said, “We work hard to eliminate health disparities for our patients and communities and integrate diversity and inclusion into all aspects of our operations.”