Working Together to Address Health Disparities in the Black Community

Michelle Pastrana, a marketing manager at Baxter and one of the leaders of our Activating Change Today (ACT) racial justice initiative, shares her perspective on how we can work together to address health disparities that impact the Black community.

We've known for years that Black and Latino Americans are treated differently in the healthcare system. As our country wrestled with racism following deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the health disparities that impact Black Americans came into sharper focus – for Baxter as a company and for me personally.

Growing up on the southside of Chicago, I've seen the impact of these disparities, but I didn't really understand why it was happening. It was common to see friends or neighbors with missing limbs due to diabetes. Being on dialysis was considered normal. You accept this as a way of life even though it doesn't have to be. 

I was shocked to learn that Black Americans are almost four times more likely to develop chronic kidney disease than white Americans.1 There are many things that drive health disparities in the Black community including systemic racism in the healthcare system and social determinants such as lack of access to health services, lack of education around diseases, and food deserts leading to poor nutrition and health behaviors. Systemic racism in the healthcare system can impact how Black people are diagnosed, how treatment options are considered and whether a Black patient feels they can trust their healthcare provider. 

It can feel overwhelming to try to fix the systemic racism that is driving these disparities. But, I know what the healthcare community can accomplish when it comes together to make a positive change. An example is the work that has been done to change how Black patients are evaluated for kidney disease. If you think you have kidney disease, your doctor will order a blood test. A lab will then use an equation to calculate your remaining kidney function. While that seems straight forward, we learned that when calculating this for Black patients, many labs apply a race adjustment which some believe is the result of systemic racism. This can cause a delay in treatment or not being put on the kidney transplant list as early as a white patient. In 2020, the community came together to change the practice. Last year, the National Kidney Foundation and the American Society of Nephrology released a new way to diagnose kidney disease that does not use race as a factor.

I am proud of the work we are doing here at Baxter to address another root cause of disparities in kidney care – a lack of meaningful education. As part of Baxter's Activating Change Today (ACT) initiative, we had an opportunity to make a bigger impact. We launched a new initiative called Black K.A.R.E. in partnership with The LINKS, Incorporated, a volunteer service organization comprised of 16,000 women of color. Baxter provided funding for this kidney disease awareness program designed to increase awareness and education in the Black community about kidney health and managing chronic kidney disease. The program specifically targets high chronic kidney disease areas in multiple states. Grants were awarded to local LINKS chapters in the organization's 17-state U.S. Central area over a 9-month period. The LINKS chapters didn’t do this alone – they engaged with area healthcare professionals, faith-based organizations, civic leaders and other influential community members. I am so proud of the work The LINKS chapters have done to partner with 500+ community members and 200+ healthcare professionals to engage and educate nearly 50,000 community members to drive awareness of kidney health. Through their respective partnerships, chapters hosted local events, ran social media campaigns and more. One piece that really stands out is the health screening events conducted in the community. At one community event, three in ten people who were screened for kidney function had abnormal results and were directed to care. Without this program, it's possible they may not have received care in time. 

Now that the pilot is almost complete, we have learned a few things along the way about how to effectively impact change and engage the Black community:

  • When it comes to change, it needs to be done for the community, by the community. Everyone who worked on the programs were from within the community and were willing to lend their trusted voices to this important cause. 
  • Engage an organization that has the infrastructure and passion to be effective. In our case, The LINKS group has strong local chapters that rallied around this opportunity to educate their neighbors, families and friends. We helped connect the chapters with resources and then got out of their way so they could make a difference.
  • Start small. We focused on one health condition and then ran a pilot program to understand what works best. We are now able to take those learnings and apply the most effective programs to The Links 300+ chapters internationally.