By V.S. Santoni
For 75 years, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee has worked tirelessly with its members and local communities to bring Tennesseans healthcare, especially those in vulnerable populations. J.D. Hickey, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee stated that his organization has always emphasized diversity and inclusion. In keeping true to that statement, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee has issued its first ever health equity report to highlight healthcare disparities among Tennesseans. They hosted a virtual event on February 13 to discuss the report and their findings.
Leading the project was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Andrea Willis and Senior VP and Chief Data Engineering Officer Sherri Zink. They worked with both healthcare providers and Meharry Medical College to gather robust data on diverse patients from across the state, which they further analyzed along racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines. Their findings revealed that in Tennessee: Black patients are 2.5 times more likely to experience pregnancy-related death than white patients; Black adults are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure and less likely to have it managed than their white counterparts; Indigenous Tennesseans reported experiencing mental health issues 10 days out of every month, more than any other racial or ethnic group; and Hispanic Tennesseans accounted for 8% of COVID-19 deaths of Tennesseans 40 years and younger. Social factors, they say, play a large role in determining healthcare outcomes. Zink said, for example, that even though cancer screenings were consistent across groups, Black women in Tennessee have the 9th highest rate of death from breast cancer in the U.S.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Willis, “We wanted to get a better picture of the health issues and barriers to care faced by our members and Tennesseans as a whole, so that we could more effectively partner with health care providers to address those issues . . . understanding this data helps support progress that will ultimately deliver better health for everyone, regardless of their background.” They posted their findings to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee’s website (bcbst.com). There they hope healthcare providers will have access to data not previously available to the public, which they can use to enhance healthcare outcomes for people in marginalized groups. Furthermore, making this information accessible to the public will help individuals and organizations in marginalized communities strategize methods to deal with their specific issues.
When asked what one major bulwark was to providing healthcare to marginalized Tennesseans, especially Black Tennesseans, Willis said that distrust for the healthcare community provided a major barrier, and this distrust has been borne out of both historical and current social factors. These factors include education, language, safety, debt burden, and an ongoing behavioral healthcare shortage. Making healthcare providers aware of these factors will help them administer more effective care.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee intends to release another report in the coming year. This one will contribute additional focus on post-pandemic behavioral healthcare as Zink notes depression rates among at-risk groups has been climbing since the initial outbreak of Covid-19. Willis is interested to see the impact Telehealth will have on the mental health of people in vulnerable populations. Both feel optimistic the information they’re providing will help create more health equity for all Tennesseans.