USC Social Work Dean named to new White House Health Equity Leaders Roundtable

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Dean Sarah Gehlert of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has been invited by the White House to join its new nonpartisan White House Health Equity Leaders Roundtable and has accepted the honor. The White House Office of Public Engagement established the group to provide key communication and expert perspective regarding health care access, one of this administration’s central issues. The roundtable consists of 14 health care leaders from across the United States who have been tasked with providing expertise, counsel, and potential solutions to the nation’s highest office on critical issues of health equity and disparities. Dean Gehlert is the only representative of the social work profession. Her appointment reflects the increasing recognition that the discipline is gaining as a core member of health care teams and a leading voice in any discussion of social determinants of health (SDOH).

“I am honored to have been asked to join this exceptional group of innovators and researchers with long-term experience in community health working together to create meaningful change in health care access across the country,” said Gehlert, who also serves as the endowed Ernest P. Larson Professor of Health, Ethnicity and Poverty. “Social work is getting a well-earned seat at the table in setting health care policy, and I am privileged to represent the tens of thousands of social workers across the country who are on the frontlines of health care delivery every day.”

The roundtable launched in November 2021 and meets every two weeks for a two-year term. Members are a diverse group representing physicians, social workers, community health workers, nurses, and dentists who bring expertise and experience in spheres like oncology, pediatrics, cardiology, emergency medicine, disability medicine, and nephrology as they affect communities in need. For example, pediatric nephrologist Dr. O.N. Ray Bignall II works with families in rural Ohio and brings an important perspective on the dual threats of lower socioeconomic status and the lack of access due to geography. Discussions in initial roundtable sessions have stemmed from probes presented ahead of meetings such as the impact of housing on health, how to best assess social determinants of health in a clinical setting, the challenges of the referral system between the health care and social services communities, and best practices for partnerships between government and health care practitioners to achieve healthy equity.

Addressing disparities in access to health care is one of the most critical issues affecting society today. According to a 2020 report from the Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. spends nearly twice as much on health care as a share of the economy compared to other high-income countries yet has the lowest life expectancy and highest suicide rates.1  Lack of access to care sufficient to achieve full health potential is widespread, and even more so among members of marginalized communities, who experience tremendous health inequities. This includes disparities by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, and geography. For example, although African Americans and white women have the same incidence of breast cancer, African American women are 42 percent more likely to die from the disease according to a 2016 study published by the American Cancer Society.2  The number of suicide attempts by adolescent Hispanic females in 2019 was 30 percent higher than that of adolescent non-Hispanic white females according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH).3  And tuberculosis is 33 times more common in Asian Americans than among non-Hispanic whites.4  These disparities not only impact the individuals and communities who experience them, they affect everyone in society and economy. A 2018 study found that racial health disparities cost $42 billion in lowered productivity and $93 billion in excess medical costs each year.5

The White House chose Gehlert because her “national leadership and scholarship in the field of health equity set a clear example of how clinicians can lead on the toughest issues facing our patients,” according to Dr. Alister Martin, MD, MPP, the Harvard Medical School professor and White House fellow who leads the roundtable.

Dean Gehlert is recognized as an expert on health disparities, with a twenty-year history of leading teams of scholars from the biological, clinical, social, and behavioral sciences to capture the complexity of the determinants of inequalities. Her research focuses on how neighborhood and community factors “get under the skin” to change biology and, thus, health outcomes. She completed a multi-year National Cancer Institute (NCI) funded study of African American breast cancer in Chicago, in which her team followed 380 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer in their homes in 17 neighborhood areas of Chicago. Each woman was followed for 1.5 years. She was named the Public Health Social Worker of the Year in 2018 by the American Public Health Association and is currently a member of the Council for Extramural Grants at the American Cancer Society as well as the Steering Committee of the California Breast Cancer Research Program. Her current NCI funded research focuses on the effect of local and federal smoking policy on the health behavior residents of 12 large public housing authority units in Virginia.

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1 Tikkanen, Roosa, The Commonwealth Fund, 2020, “U.S. Health Care from a Global Perspective, 2019: Higher Spending, Worse Outcomes?” Accessed 19 April 2022. https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2020/jan/us-health-care-global-perspective-2019

2  DeSantis, Carol E., “Breast cancer statistics, 2015: Convergence of incidence rates between black and white women,” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2016. Accessed 19 April 2022. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21320

3  Office of Minority Health, “Mental and Behavioral Health – Hispanics,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed 19 April 2022. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=69

4  Office of Minority Health, “Profile: Asian Americans,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed 19 April 2022. https://www.minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=3&lvlid=63

5  Turner, Ani, “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Altarum, 2018. Accessed 19 April 2022. https://altarum.org/sites/default/files/uploaded-publication-files/WKKellogg_Business-Case-Racial-Equity_National-Report_2018.pdf

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