Updated: Apr 9, 2021
When it comes to health, your ZIP code may matter more than anything else. Your geographical location drives the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and whether or not you have access to healthy foods or safe places to get exercise. It informs the quality of your education, your access to healthcare, and jobs. A study by Garth Graham in 2016 found “In various cities across America, average life expectancies in certain communities are 20-30 years shorter than those mere miles away.”
Take New Orleans, where a baby born in the Navarre neighborhood is expected to live full 25 years longer than a baby born in the Iberville neighborhood. These two neighborhoods are only three miles apart. This disparity may seem staggering, but it isn’t really news. For decades, research has highlighted structural inequalities in communities that result in the unequal allocation of resources and the creation of social, economic, and environmental conditions that drive poor health. Graham’s study determined that “Government policymakers are acutely aware of these disparities, but recent health system reforms have focused predominately on the processes used to administer, finance, and deliver care.”
What we require is a paradigm of healthcare that accommodates the health and wellness needs of all the people in a geographic area, one that takes more than just clinical factors into account. The social determinants of health, such as genetics, the environment, social circumstances, and individual behaviors, must be considered in order to promote equity.
In recent years, there has been increasing action from public health agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations to begin to break down structural racism and address the underlying social determinants that lead to health disparities. Covid-19 has reinforced the importance of this work as it has ravaged underserved communities with existing health disparities. These communities have experienced increased rates of infection, complications, and death from the illness, while existing challenges, like high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness have been compounded.
Despite a large body of evidence, and the reality that business operations can play a substantial role in creating and reinforcing community conditions, the private sector has been largely absent from the conversation and certainly from taking action. In 2020, Covid-19, George Floyd’s killing, and ongoing protests have now made it impossible to ignore the inequities plaguing our communities – businesses can no longer sit idle claiming lack of awareness. They must decide to be a part of the solution or continue to be a part of the problem. Some progress is evident; according to a recent McKinsey analysis, about 32% of the top 1000 companies in the US have made public statements and 22% have pledged over $66 billion to advance racial equity. While any progress is good, there is still much room for improvement, as 68% of companies have still not even entered the conversation.
Businesses have significant power to support and even lead to meaningful change. The Harvard Business Review found that “Creating shared value—pursuing financial success in a way that also yields societal benefits—has become an imperative for corporations.”
We must bring the private sector to the table to support developing meaningful health equity. Some have been willing to step up because it aligns with their stated values or simply because it is the right thing to do, but truly mobilizing the private sector will require a compelling business case that showcases the significant positive impacts that can be expected from creating partnerships, listening, and making smart investments in communities where they operate. Many studies support these ideas; it has been shown that:
Health and education reinforce and improve each other:
Building this case and leading this change is just one of the exciting projects that are underway at the Gordian Knot Society. Interested in helping us build it? Join us!