How Employers Can Drive Health Equity

In April, Marsh McLennan hosted the Equity = Possibility Black Leaders Symposium in Atlanta, GA. Vikki Walton, Head of MercerWELL Health Equity Center of Excellence, joined Maia Lang, Vice President of the Office of Health Equity at UnitedHealth Group, and Penny Smith, AVP of Customer Analysis & Solutions at UnitedHealthcare, for the panel discussion Driving Health Equity: Insights, Solutions and Actionable Strategies. Here she shares key takeaways on the importance of data, employee engagement and innovative solutions when addressing health disparities across diverse communities.


Data is gold in addressing health disparities

The power of data in understanding and addressing health disparities cannot be overstated. For example, by focusing on a specific social determinant of health (SDOH), such as access to nutritious foods, something as simple as a zip code can become a key datapoint to understanding the likelihood an employee is experiencing some form of food insecurity. Why is this important? Many employees live in food deserts, areas with limited access to a variety of healthy foods, which can affect not only their personal well-being, but also their ability to thrive in the workplace. In addition, food insecurity is a costly SDOH; on average, a family that is at elevated risk for food insecurity is going to cost the healthcare system about $2,500 more annually than a family with easy access to affordable, nutrition-dense foods. Additionally, about 50% of healthcare costs are connected in some way to food consumption.

Unfortunately, only 27% of organizations capture the necessary data to understand their employees’ needs. One approach is to look at the existing data, such as the previously mentioned zip codes, and adjust benefit plans based on the information already available. Employers can also start casting a wider net by taking steps to actively listen to employees and collecting relevant information that can then be translated into measurable, effective benefit programs that address health disparities. This allows organizations to promote employee well-being, drive better health outcomes and enjoy cost savings in the long term.


Be proactive at elevating the employee voice

Speaking of active listening, employers should start with an essential first step: elevating employees’ voices in the conversation. At the end of the day, employees are the best source of identifying and exploring how to address existing health equity issues, beginning with an honest look at how well their benefits are helping them (or not). Listening to employees’ needs not only helps guide better benefit design, but it can also increase employees’ loyalty over time.

This can be accomplished in a few ways. Employee resource groups (ERGs) and similar programs are incredibly effective channels for gathering direct feedback from employees, as long as they are equipped with the support and resources they need to conduct and report back on those conversations. Health risk assessments are helpful in gathering self-reported data from employees to help guide benefit design. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, employers should engage with their employees at a local level, using existing SDOH data. By doing this, employers can begin building trust among their employees that will only grow over time.


Active participation between patients and healthcare providers is key

Active participation from both patients and healthcare providers in the healthcare system is imperative. Employees indicate they want doctors who can see and understand them. Despite advances through the years, however, there continues to be a lack of diversity among providers within the healthcare system, such as individuals of color. As a result, many patients do not engage in the healthcare system due to not feeling understood by their doctor and out of fear that this misunderstanding may lead to harm.

Providers with similar cultural and racial backgrounds are needed in the healthcare pipeline, offering the representation that meets the needs of multicultural populations. Existing providers must be thoroughly trained to understand the needs of patients whose backgrounds have not historically been centered in research and care practices. Investing in diverse and culturally competent providers will help establish trust among patients, which can lead to higher engagement and better health outcomes for employees.

It is also important that patients actively engage in the healthcare system. By simply talking about health and continuing a dialogue within their communities, employees can better contextualize the health equity issues they are facing and offer insight on what is or is not working to address these issues. The opportunity to influence via ERGs works on this side of the conversation as well, opening opportunities to directly communicate their needs to their employer, which can help guide better benefit design.


Innovate to care better

Some 78% of employers are starting to address health equity, but only 12% are looking at it from a strategic lens, according to Mercer’s Health & Benefit Strategies for 2024 report. Leaning in on innovation and considering health equity from a holistic perspective is a key lever for employers when structuring their benefit programs. But how?

Try grouping employees into cohorts. Our data shows 23% of our employer respondents are covering doulas, midwives and alternative birthing sites. These employers are not only providing a key benefit to a specific cohort within their organizations by doing this—increasing the quality of care offered to women and birthing people—but also addressing issues such as maternal mortality, where we see Black women tragically dying three times more often than white women.


What now?

Health equity is a costly burden on both employers and employees. Yet it can be addressed with specific strategic actions. Capturing and using data strategically, actively listening to employees, encouraging active participation in the healthcare system and seizing opportunities to be innovative in how we address inequities will drive us forward.