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President of of National Medical Fellowships explains diversity initiatives

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Michellene Davis, the president and CEO of National Medical Fellowships, joined Yahoo Finance to disccus the latest in health equity.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Let's turn our attention, though, to the health care sector, and specifically improving equity in clinical training and staffing within the industry. We want to send it over to Anjalee Khemlani for more on that. Anj.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Thanks, Seana. Well, we're starting off, this week has been really exciting for health equity and the discussion really around the country, something that has been really picking up, and right now we're starting our series of economics of health. Joining me now to discuss everything to do with this is Michellene Davis, President and CEO of National Medical Fellowships.

Michellene, thanks so much for joining us today. A lot to get into. But let's start off with you and your story, jumping from the comfort of an executive suite of a large hospital chain to this current role. And in your initial letter, really talking about some of the things, naming systemic racism and issues. What-- what was the reason behind that? And how does that really affect minority doctors today?

MICHELLENE DAVIS: Thank you so much for the question and for having me, first of all. So much of what we are seeing right now in reference to the desire to have more physicians in the pipeline is really around not just the current issue, it's not about their brilliance, it really is about the structural and systemic inequities that have been laid bare as a result of COVID. But those of us who have been in the health equity space have known that for a long, long time that these structural inequities existed.

So we call the thing a thing. You are correct. I did, in fact, leave an ivory tower, the state's largest academic medical center system, in order to come to National Medical Fellowships. And that is because I really wanted to be a part of moving the dial on health equity, had to be a part of making certain that I just wasn't issuing a statement, but really ensuring that health equity and health disparities change.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And I know one of those steps that you've already taken is expanding the fellowship to include pushing out more physician scientists. Especially as we saw during the COVID-19 vaccine trials and treatment trials, there's so much yet to be done to increase diversity there. How does this-- how do you plan to do this moving forward? What are the steps you need to take in order to really solidify this and make this happen?

MICHELLENE DAVIS: Well, NMF is actually one of the country's first diversity organizations. Founded 75 years ago, we have a long history of ensuring that community trust is really an element of what it is that-- that we do and how we exist, meaning that we have individuals who are coming to us as future physicians from many of these communities that are vulnerable as a result of structural inequity. Well, in this instance, we are seeing, in the midst of an effort to literally commit to a global vaccination effort, we're seeing just continuous community hesitancy, which actually is earned by the history of medicine, particularly in this country, and the use of vulnerable populations who are really exploited.

One of the things that we have to ensure that we are doing is having individuals who are physician scientists who are becoming clinical researchers and investigators who are around that table in order to increase cultural competence. And quite frankly, all of this work, all of health equity only moves as quickly as the speed of trust, and we need to make certain that we are developing deep trust with our communities by having their voices represented by those involved in running clinical trials. We're really excited to partner in the way in which we have historically with Johnson & Johnson and with Merck, and now, of course, with Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation in order to do exactly that.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Yeah, that's-- that's really an important point looking at that diversity. I know that for a long time there have been sort of different names and iterations for looking at what the inequities are. Social determinants of health was a big buzz phrase a few years ago. And it's all-encompassing now, and there's a lot of focus on it.

Today, we heard from UnitedHealthcare talking about the idea of reducing or capping-- or rather looking at emergency claims and trying to reduce the amount of claims that are-- are approved that are for non-emergent issues. And that's something that I know is really big when it comes to health equity, because for a lot of people, the emergency room is the only place to go.

And we've seen other insurers like Anthem do this in the past facing lots of criticism. I just wonder when we talk about this and talk about how even in a post-COVID world where telehealth, for example, is supposed to play a bigger role, that still faces barriers with things like the digital divide, and it affects the very same people that do rely on the emergency room. So how do we solve this problem and this over-reliance on emergency rooms without bankrupting patients?

MICHELLENE DAVIS: So that's a great question as well, Anjalee. And one of the things I will tell you is coming from a health care system, certainly the emergency room, the emergency door is the most expensive entrance into a hospital, any hospital. That being said, I, too, have seen the news.

And while my legal training dictates that I not speak to any contractual relationship between an employer and employee when I have not read the contract, what I will tell you is that according to the reports about it, what we can tell is the fact that the most vulnerable populations, those on Medicare and Medicaid, they are not being affected as a result of this.

That being said, one of the chief things that really every institution can do in order to address this issue of access in communities that have been made vulnerable as a result of historical under-resourcing is to really ensure that you are investing in the future pipeline of physicians who are oftentimes from those very communities. That is exactly what National Medical Fellowships does. And quite frankly, UnitedHealthcare happens to have a long history of supporting us in exactly that manner in order to ensure that the future of health care leadership is one which is diverse.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, looking at the diversity, there's also issues like food-- food access, and steady jobs, et cetera. There's so many factors that play into this. And I know that you've looked at them over the years. You worked on a project for food access, and that's something that's really important. How do we get that to a national scale, because it seems like one of the biggest issues is death by pilot, right, in the industry?

MICHELLENE DAVIS: Yeah, that's a really great term, death by pilot. What I will tell you is the fact that-- that as you talk about, food access, we'll recall, that one of the most important elements of starting even a hospital-affiliated greenhouse or community kitchen in any way is to ensure that policies are made which-- which ensure that they are not just a one-time thing, that they are not just one prototype, that they are not just one pilot.

And that really is what we did in that particular effort because of the fact that we were able to change who could receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program vouchers at that particular site. It's a real need within a community that as hospitals and other systems begin to do these pilots that the most vulnerable, those for whom it is intended, actually have access to the product of those. And so one of the things that-- that we really need to do is to make certain that we are never doing this in an isolated manner. Partnerships are the most key component to ensuring healthier and better communities all across the table.

In addition to that, ensuring that health equity is attainable is going to require that we do this in a collective impact method, right. So by virtue of having many partners, we also have many stakeholders who are invested in the success of yes, one pilot, but then can also help us to really ensure that we are scaling them so that it's not just one community at a time, but that we are ensuring that we are really investing in community wealth and community health that changes community health care outcome.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Mm-hmm. Well, that's all the time we have for that today. Hopefully we can talk about this more with you soon. Michellene Davis, President and CEO of National Medical Fellowships. Thank you so much for joining us.