As the panelists who took part in the March 23 Creating Equity in Healthcare panel at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Jackson Blvd., noted, West Side hospitals were making history.
For the first time ever, Austin-based Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave., North Lawndale-based Sinai Health System, 1500 S. Fairfield Ave., and Oak Park-based PCC Community Wellness Center are headed by African-American women. They joined with other Black women in leadership positions in health-related fields to discuss something West Side health professionals have been sounding the alarm on for years – the 20-year life expectancy gap between majority-Black West Side communities and majority-white communities further east.
The event was billed as the first of many community conversations Loretto Hospital is planning to organize. This time around, the panelists didn’t offer up many solutions, but there was a broad agreement they should build up collaborations with community stakeholders who are already there, and not be afraid to call out systemic factors that continue to adversely affect Black health.
The fact that Black Chicagoans have a shorter life expectancy than their white counterparts, and that the gap is particularly stark on the West Side, has been documented in several studies. The 2021 Chicago Department of Public Health’s State of Health for Blacks report found that life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black Chicagoans increased between 2012 and 2017, going from 8.3 years to 9.2 years. The report found that 1 in 7 African Americans, or roughly 14 percent of Chicago’s Black population, died of causes other than old age, compared to 1 out of 29, or 3.5 percent, of non-Black Chicagoans. Although there were a number of reasons for the increase, the authors cited five driving factors: chronic disease, violent crime, infant mortality, infectious disease and opioid overdoses.
In recent years, five major West Side health systems — Rush University Medical Center, Sinai Health System, University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, Cook County Health system, and what is now known as Ascension health system – joined forces to create West Side United collaborative, which seeks to address non-medical factors that affect their patients’ health. This includes lack of job and educational opportunities, shortage of safe and affordable housing, and lack of access to nutrition, among other issues. As officials involved acknowledged last year, progress has been slow and incremental.
Tesa Anewoshki, who served as Loretto’s interim president since April 2022 and was hired permanently in December, said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the inequities – and West Side healthcare providers want to make sure that some of the urgency in addressing the underlined caused doesn’t recede.
PCC president Toni Bush said she grew up in the South Side’s Englewood and Altgeld Gardens communities, and her family ended up moving to majority-white, west suburban Naperville. She said she had seen people her age who stayed on the South Side get sick and die – which drove home the impact of the environment.
“Because I spent a good chunk of my life in Naperville, I think my life expectancy went up — it did, as sad it is for me to admit it,” Bush said.
Dr. Suzet McKinney, former CEO of the Illinois Medical District and the current Director of Life Sciences at Sterling Bay real estate developer, grew up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, where, she said, she benefitted from a stable environment. As she saw it, the health disparities “boil down to economics.” When people don’t have the opportunity to work, or their job barely pays enough for them to make the ends meet, their health ends up on the backburner.
“We have to make sure people can go to work.” McKinney said. “If people don’t have the opportunity to participate in the economy, what are they going to do, where are they going to go? If parents are worried about putting food on the table every day, they don’t go to a doctor’s appointment.”
Dr. Cheryl Whitaker, founder of Complete Care Management partners, an Oak Park-based company that provides support services for patients in low-income communities, said while the economic factors are important, so is structural racism – be it the legacy of redlining or the fear of becoming a victim of racist violence.
“Remember the structural determinates that, every single day, creates a level of stress on us, no matter the economic [status] — that’s a real thing we cannot ignore,” she said.
Sinai President Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who headed the Illinois Department of Public Health through the worst of the pandemic, said collaborating with community stakeholders – something that her employer has been doing on its own and as part of West Side United – would go a long way.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel — we just need to bring everybody to the table,” she said.
Bush said that being upfront about the root causes of disparities is important as well.
“[We need to be] willing to have tough conversations, and some difficult, very blunt conversations, and thank you, Dr. Whitaker, for being so blunt and so direct,” she said.