Good news for those paying close attention to the fight for health equity: We’re seeing a tide change in the industry. For years, many groups have been talking about the moral imperative of improving health equity, but recently there’s been increased momentum toward real, lasting change. The pandemic and the push for social justice have moved the health equity conversation from ideas into action, and every health company has a role to play in this broad cultural movement.
This shift was clear in September at a conference hosted by Nestlé Health Sciences, Chain Drug Review and Kearney, Together in the Fight for Health Equity. More than 20 executives from retail pharmacies and grocery chains, as well as representatives from local organizations, academia, foundations and start-ups, came together to share how they’re addressing health inequities and creating a healthier future for all.
The overarching message: Retailers have the opportunity to create major impact, as they are deeply embedded in local communities and are armed with the consumer behavior data and expertise to create lasting change.
Kearney has a framework with three essential steps to foster equity: Minimize the Hurt, Help the Heal, Amplify the Impact. If you’re thinking about how your organization can join the fight for health equity, look to the examples below for inspiration.
Minimize the hurt
First, review your existing initiatives and business decisions through an equity lens. Look for disparate outcomes in the communities you serve. How could you address the inequity that already exists in your business and community?
Consider investing in employee benefits that promote equity. For example, Walmart has started offering doula support as an employee benefit in Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana and Illinois. Doula presence measurably reduces the maternal health mortality that disproportionately affects African American women. Moreover, by offering life and trade skills to the community, Walmart supports education and job stability — both critical risk factors in people’s health.
Companies have ample opportunities to target the social determinants that affect the health of their employees and thus of their own communities. Consider building a health equity engine within your organization to structure decision making around the topic. For example, Walgreens has embedded health equity ambassadors into the business to assess the health equity impact of all existing and new initiatives.
The commitment to health equity above and beyond profit has to come from the top and is already well understood by frontline staff, but health equity summits organized in conjunction with a community organization or a retailer can build knowledge and skills across the entire company.
Help the heal
The next step is to define the role your organization will play in the fight for health equity. What will the path forward look like? What new initiatives could reduce inequity? Be ready to tackle short-term needs as well as provide long-term investment.
Pharmacies, grocers and CPG companies are working to strengthen their communities by doing what they do best — donating food, supplements and nutritionist visits to populations in need, and offering last-mile delivery of food and medicines to hard-to-reach ZIP codes. This was particularly critical during COVID, when organizations partnered to administer vaccines deep into the community, but the partnerships and processes should live on to maintain contact with these patients.
Companies can also have a longer-term impact on the communities in which they operate. For example, Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s scholarship program for pharmacy students at historically Black colleges or universities is part of the company’s initiative to make pharmacies more representative of the communities they serve. Similarly, Kroger’s Racial Equity Fund Build It Together program awards grants to partner organizations and small businesses that are already doing important work to drive equity in local communities.
Retailers shared how they’re advocating at the national and state level to support systemic changes that will allow retail pharmacies to provide care for underserved communities, while maintaining supplier, health care and retailer presence in these areas. Suggested reforms include elevating the role of the pharmacist to provide more care (especially in medical deserts) and supporting “multi-win” agreements with payors (including insurers and pharmacy benefit managers) that allow smaller pharmacies to continue operating.
Amplify the impact
Finally, consider how you will continue to drive efforts in the long term. What mechanisms could you use to scale the impact of initiatives that have demonstrated success? Key to this step: Think big. Amplify your impact beyond your single organization by developing a coalition with patient groups, academia, pharmacies, providers and community associations. Work together to share data, conduct pilots and advance policy change.
One way to create change is to pilot initiatives deep into communities and amplify the impact through partnerships with local associations. We heard about a pilot from the grocery chain Albertsons in partnership with a state government: a struggling retail location bolstered sales by participating in a program that matched customers’ spend on produce, increasing access to fresh, healthy food.
Others are taking a different approach, by partnering nationally with NGOs. Walgreens has been working with Vitamin Angels, a nonprofit that supplies prenatal vitamins wherever there is a need, across the U.S. and several other countries.
And finally, companies can make long-term investments to measurably impact health equity. Retailers are investing in grants, scholarships and other financial support for pharmacy, nutrition and health care students — and continuing to invest after those students go on to grow in their careers and start their own businesses. Kroger is actively investing in supplier diversification, increasing diverse spend by 12% annually over 2017 to 2019 alone. Good Neighbor is helping minority entrepreneurs become owners of their own pharmacies, strengthening wealth in the community, and building a culture of trust between health care professionals and the populations they serve.
Prepare for action
If your organization is ready to use the inspiration shared above and create concrete change in your operation, we’ll leave you with a few key tips:
- Get top-down leadership buy-in, then mobilize the middle. Frontline workers are typically already onboard and practicing health equity. Getting the message and the call to action to the rest of the organization takes time but is essential to living and breathing health equity.
- Share, connect and leverage data. Data will help you understand where to focus efforts and investment, and evaluate what initiatives work and which ones don’t. It is the only way to appropriately chip away at the complex scope of health equity and demonstrate the return on investment that we know is there but may be hidden behind confounding factors.
- Explore collaborative competition, partnering with competitors to do more. For example, Kroger partners with Ocado to deliver to underserved ZIP codes, and Walgreens partnered with Good Neighbor to administer COVID vaccines in hard-to-reach populations.
Health inequity is a complex challenge, and there isn’t one simple solution. Instead, organizations that use a combination of the approaches described above will create the maximum impact. Look for ways to minimize the hurt, help the heal and amplify the impact. The pandemic has taught us that true impact happens when we share resources and work together across sectors.
Todd Huseby is a partner in the Health practice at Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected]. Dominique Harris is a partner in the Leadership, Change and Organization practice at Kearney. She can be reached at [email protected].
The authors would like to thank Rodey Wing, Laura Bowen, Calypso Montouchet, Karen Yocky and Lee Pierce for their valuable contributions.