Good health goes beyond having a doctor and insurance, says AMA’s equity chief


Part of Dr. Aletha Maybank’s medical training left a sour taste in her mouth.

Aletha Maybank, MD, is the AMA's first chief equity officer and a pediatrician in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ted Grudzinski, courtesy of the American Medical Association

Dr. Aletha Maybank

Her superiors told her not to worry about nonmedical issues affecting her patients’ quality of life, she said, because social workers would handle it. But she didn’t understand how physicians could divorce medical advice from the context of patients’ lives.

“How can you offer advice as recommendations that’s not even relevant to how their day to day plays out?” Dr. Maybank asked.

Today, Dr. Maybank is continuing to question that medical school philosophy. She was recently named the first chief health equity officer for the American Medical Association. In that job, she is responsible for implementing practices among doctors across the country to help end disparities in care. She has a full agenda, including launching the group’s Center for Health Equity and helping the Chicago-based doctors association reach out to people in poor neighborhoods in the city.

A pediatrician, Dr. Maybank previously worked for the New York City government as deputy commissioner for the health department and founding director of the city’s health equity center.

Carmen Heredia Rodriguez of Kaiser Health News recently spoke with Dr. Maybank about her new role and how health inequities affect Americans. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you tell me what health equity means to you, and what are some of the main drivers that are keeping health inequitable in this country?

The AMA policy around health equity is optimal health for all people.

But it’s not just an outcome; there’s a process to get there. How do we engage with people? How do we look at and collect our data to make sure our practices and processes are equitable? How do we hire differently to ensure diversity? All these things are processes to achieve health equity.

In order to understand what produces inequities, we have to understand what creates health. Health is created outside of the walls of the doctor’s office and at the hospital. What are patients’ jobs and employment like? The kind of education they have. Income. Their ability to build wealth. All of these are conditions that impact health.

Q: Is there anything along your career path that really surprised you about the state of health care in the United States?

There’s the perception that all of our health is really determined by whether you have a doctor or not, or if you have insurance. What creates health is much beyond that.

So if we really want to work on health and equity, we have to partner with people who are in the education space and the economic space and the housing spaces, because that’s where health inequities are produced. You could have insurance coverage. You could have a primary care doctor. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience health inequities.

Q: Discrimination based on racial lines is one obvious driver of health inequities. What are some of the other populations that are affected by health inequity?

I think structural racism is a system that affects us all.


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