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Health Equity

What Grady’s Chief Health Equity Officer Said About Challenges Facing Black Patients

Dr. Yolanda Wimberly says educating the next generation of physicians and embracing diversity is crucial to closing access gaps.

Grady Memorial Hospital’s chief equity officer says community engagement, recruiting medical personnel from diverse backgrounds, and kindness would all make for a healthier Atlanta. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

Dr. Yolanda Wimberly is fully aware of the health challenges facing Black patients in metro Atlanta. Hospitals have closed across the state, including Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point and AMC’s main campus in Old Fourth Ward last year. Both hospitals served predominantly Black communities. According to Wimberly, Grady Health System’s chief health equity officer, solutions to create better access to care start with community engagement and recruiting medical personnel from diverse backgrounds.

Wimberly has spent nearly two years leading Grady’s Health Equity Office. Since joining Grady in October 2021, she has sought solutions to addressing access and diversity issues. It’s why the Atlanta Business Chronicle named her as the Top Diversity and Inclusion Officer during their 2022 awards program.

“Thinking about what that open access does for us, those are some of the things that I help Grady think through, what is our strategy for being able to deliver these things in the community,” Wimberly said. “That’s the big piece to me, is just making sure that we are out there in the community, that we have our finger on the pulse of the community, and we’re able to really help them with their needs.”

Speaking to Capital B Atlanta, Wimberly opened up about her job in keeping equity top of mind for Grady, the role medical schools’ recruitment plays, and how the healthcare system is dealing with fallout from local hospital closures.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Capital B Atlanta: With the closures of Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point and Atlanta Medical Center in Old Fourth Ward, what impact do those closures have on Grady and other health institutions’ ability to serve Black patients?

Dr. Yolanda Wimberly: It might sound like a cliche, but Grady is Grady; we’re used to this. We definitely were privileged to serve the same population of patients. [AMC] had been ramping down on their services for a while, and it’s something that you just absorb. We knew that the trauma was now going to start to come to us because they were the other Level 1 [trauma center]. We knew that that part was probably going to be the biggest impact. We prepared for that and we’ve been able to absorb and we’ve been able to do actually a pretty good job.

The one thing that we weren’t anticipating was ambulatory care, the primary care services, and in addition, [obstetrics] care. Because we did have an increase in the amount of OB patients and deliveries that we had at Grady, of those moms who usually would’ve delivered at AMC who are now coming over to Grady.

In South Fulton County, Black residents have a life expectancy that is five years less than those who live in wealthier North Fulton County. As someone who focuses on health equity, what’s troubling for you on that front? Are we making progress anywhere? 

It’s interesting because I’ve been a resident of South Fulton for the past 23 years. With life expectancy, one of the most important predictors is going to be your zip code that you live in. A lot of that drives down to access. If I have to drive 20, 30 minutes to get to the physician’s office or to a hospital, that’s going to make a difference in how I access healthcare.

The second thing you’re going to have is you’re going to have the ability to pay. It might be that I am underinsured or maybe I have Medicaid or I have Medicare and maybe some providers in my area cap the number of Medicare or Medicaid patients that they take, or maybe they don’t take them at all. If I don’t have insurance, I might only have four places I can go. But if I have insurance, I might have 20 places that I can go.

You also have to look at your wait times. Even if I do get into a physician’s office, is it going to take them five or six months [to be seen]? Now, that might be because of the fact that I’m in a high density area with a low amount of medical practices … sometimes you have to go maybe to a more rural area or to get something faster. Those are things that people really need to think about when they’re talking about that.

I think that we miss the ball a lot on doing a lot of education within our school system. Our kids dictate a lot for us. Just think if we taught kids about diabetes, if we taught kids about hypertension, if we taught kids about good nutrition, if we taught kids about recognizing signs and symptoms of different things, they could then be the mouthpiece for their parents and their loved ones and their family members. It’s something that is a novel approach that I think we need to just hit it in all different areas, that I personally don’t feel that we have maximized what we can do.

Hopefully, part of what we do within our office here is to come up with solutions and action plans to be able to at least chip away at some of that. Now we are opening up two new sites, two new inventory sites. One on Cascade Road, which is actually right up the street from my house, and then another one, Lee + White Health Center, which is a little bit further into the city in the West End area. 

Among the things that get in the way of health equity is bias. In your role, I wonder how you help physicians and people who work at Grady see people as people and not just numbers, especially since the majority of Atlanta hospitals are operating near or at capacity. 

Well, there are different roles to that, the question. The first role is who you recruit to come into healthcare. You start young, you make sure that you have a diverse group of people that you’re bringing into healthcare that have that diverse lived experience. If I lived in South Fulton for 23 years, I’m going to be passionate about South Fulton. You bring that familiarity and that lived experience to work and how you interact with your patients. 

Part of it is getting a diverse pool of physicians to be in that workforce. It’s not just race, ethnicity … it’s going to be ability, it’s going to be geographic location, it’s going to be your family background and makeup, it’s going to be sex and gender. 

The second part of it is taking those of us who are here and saying, “OK, well how can I educate you to be more sensitive?”  It’s not even that hard. It’s just to be kind to people no matter what they look like or any of that, and that would be real simple. You have to have relationships. 

One thing I tell people is, “We’re not going to change this world without building relationships with people that we don’t know, with people from diverse backgrounds.” I challenge people and I say, “In your circle of friends that you have of maybe five to 10 people, of people that you really do relate to on a regular basis, what do they look like?Where do they come from? Is there diversity within that?” 

That’s how you learn about other cultures, about other religions, about other races. That’s how you learn to appreciate things. Then what you also learn is that really we’re all the same for the most part. All have the same values, we all want the same things for our lives and for our children’s lives.

What are some of the ways you’ve seen that healthcare institutions are making sure they’re tapping into the community to meet needs? How challenging is it to ensure that you’re meeting the needs of people who need care the most?

I think you’ve got to be in the community. I think that we as hospital systems have to do a better job of that. We have to know our community, and to know our community, we have to get out and be in it, and live in it. I can’t sit in my office all day, every day, and claim that I know the community around me when I’m not in it. I don’t really know, I may read a report on it, I may see something on the news. But I think it’s important for us as hospital systems to walk the walk, and make sure that in our strategic planning and the things that we do within our system, that this is something that’s prioritized.

Every hospital system that receives certain funding has something called a community health needs assessment (CHNA). I love CHNAs because what they do is go into the community and do a needs assessment. It informs us as a hospital system what programming needs to be done, and what are the things that we need to do to be successful with meeting the needs of the community.

What role do you think medical school programs play in ensuring that health equity exists throughout the healthcare system?

Looking at recruitment, how do you recruit as a medical school? Look at your class, is your class diverse? Is it something that is going to service all populations of patients? Look at your graduation rates, do you have the same rates for all races, ethnicities? Where do your medical students go to residency? Where do they choose to go afterwards? Are they going to community-based programs? Are they going to highly competitive academic programs? I think it’s important for medical schools to really look to see what is your mission? What type of physician are you trying to train? Are you trying to train a researcher? Are you trying to train a primary care doctor? Are you trying to train a subspecialist? They need to understand what their mission and goals are and be able to be intentional about the people that they bring in.