Chronic medical diseases impact more than 133 million individuals in the US--roughly 40 percent of the population and half of all adults. Unfortunately, medical experts predict that these numbers will increase over time and become more complex to treat, as one-third of the US population is currently living with more than one chronic medical condition. These complicated factors create a grim outlook for healthcare coverage, especially for underserved populations that typically lack access to affordable health services.
As a licensed therapist, I have also personally witnessed the shortcomings of America's current healthcare systems. Many of my mental health clients that require additional health services are unable to access them--often due to factors outside of their control. Clients struggle due to geographic problems, inadequate transportation, and a lack of resources in community health organizations to ensure proper referrals are completed. The challenges faced by disadvantaged communities require a new model of healthcare service, and one that prioritizes accessibility for everyone.
To learn more about how Chicago is looking to solve some of these issues, I had the privilege of speaking with Chairman and CEO Dr. Cheryl Whitaker, of NextLevel Health, a Chicago-based insurance company for underserved Medicaid members. We talked about how health care can be improved for underserved populations, and the solutions NextLevel Health has started aiming to provide.
"The best way to understand how to serve our members is to be integrated in the community itself, and witness what they're struggling with firsthand--so that we can create viable solutions. Our offices are based in the communities we serve, and our staff is often from the same community," said Dr. Whitaker.
She is a firm believer in taking a community-based and holistic approach to the healthcare issues that affect everyday people, and shared four ways in which a more holistic approach can leave a bigger impact on underserved communities.
1. Collecting digital healthcare data to make informed decisions that benefit clients.
Gathering information is crucial for noticing trends and ensuring the best possible healthcare services. In the case of NextLevel Health, healthcare providers work directly within these communities and often use tablets to gather information directly from clients, leading to more reliable information and better healthcare decisions for everyone involved.
"It's such a simple thing, but is a huge healthcare issue, and that's actually keeping records up to date and ensuring that people's medical histories are documented and organized," said Dr. Whitaker. "If they're not, then you end up running into more problems down the road, which lead to increased costs, and the cycle just keeps going and going."
2. Cultivating meaningful relationships with communities through hiring practices and community partnerships.
"Eighty percent of our staff is minority, and over 60 percent live in, or near, the communities we serve," Dr. Whitaker shared.
She indicated that they also provide entry-level job opportunities to transform the community from the inside out, highlighting that this grassroots focus not only makes healthcare services more accessible, but also increases completion of treatment. Working with other community organizations helps ensure that each client is able to receive the help they need.
3. Prioritizing communication with members by hiring specialists.
One of the biggest frustrations for many people dealing with their insurance company is the lack of clear, compassionate communication. Dr. Whitaker indicated that by hiring a team of "community specialists" who serve as advocates for members, a strong sense of trust can be built and keep members coming back for checkups--a challenge that keeps many people from receiving the treatment they need. For NextLevel Health, many of these frontline community specialists are actually hired from the very same community they serve.
"When you have people who work for and with the same communities they come from, you see a different level of commitment, understanding and enthusiasm," said Dr. Whitaker. "They want to help people even more, because these are their neighbors, their friends. And patients are also more comfortable relating to them. Healthcare solutions don't just have to come from the top, down. They can also come from the ground, up."
4. Empowering members through individualized attention and education.
One of the most important parts of receiving healthcare services is being informed about your health so that you can make important decisions. Keen on empowering members to become advocates of their own health care, Dr. Whitaker shared that NextLevel Health provides members with easy-to-understand materials and works one-on-one with members. She emphasized that the importance of education isn't just understanding which medications to take, it's also important to know what lifestyle activities should be modified to create long-term positive changes.
This seems to be one of the most difficult issues to solve in health care, period--the knowledge gap between high and low income communities. In high-income neighborhoods, individual attention and education is expected (and received). But in underserved communities, individual attention is few and far between.
When it comes to mental health, especially with the never-ending debates surrounding America's nationwide healthcare system, one solution is clear: change starts in our communities.