In a recent article published in the Washington Business Journal, Steven Woolf, MD, MPH, director emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health and author of "Deeply Rooted: History’s Lessons for Equity in Northern Virginia," and Patricia N. Mathews, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation (NVHF), discussed the opportunity and responsibility that Greater Washington’s businesses have to address health disparities in the region.
Citing data from NVHF’s report “Getting Ahead: The Uneven Opportunity Landscape in Northern Virginia,” Dr. Woolf directed attention to the region’s “islands of disadvantage,” census tracts where residents – predominantly people of color – experience high rates of poverty, unaffordable housing, poor education and lack of health insurance.
Some parts of our region,” he said in remarks during the Washington Business Journal’s “DMV Divide” event, “have third-world living conditions where poverty rates and health outcomes are what we see in developing countries.
Life expectancy alone can vary by as much as 17 years in Northern Virginia between pockets of the region’s jurisdictions, in some cases only separated by a handful of miles. Although, many factors contributed to these gaps, laws and policies from Northern Virginia’s distant past deserve much of the blame, says Dr. Woolf.
Discriminatory policies and covenants, dating as far back as the 1600’s, segregated people of color and choked off opportunities for education, homeownership, good health, and well-being. Today, the fruits of those policies have led to unequal access to a broad range of resources and opportunities - all of which profoundly impact health and affect the region’s economic engine.
According to Dr. Woolf, employers are uniquely situated to make investments that prioritize the broader social determinants of health – like access to transportation, healthy food, good jobs and stable income. These factors can help improve residents’ health and advance health equity throughout Greater Washington, he noted.
If you’re not addressing those issues," he said, "then however good your health insurance package is for your employees, they’re going to be coming into the emergency room more often. They’re going to be getting admitted to the hospital more often because they’re going to be sicker.
Ms. Mathews, who served on a panel following Dr. Woolf’s remarks, agreed, noting that the long-standing health disparities laid bare by the pandemic should push employers to think differently about what employees need to stay healthy.
As long as we hold fast to the notion that everybody just needs to go to the doctor, we’re not going to solve this," Ms. Mathews said. "It’s about understanding the issues and being champions for it in their various business settings.