Catalyst for Payment Reform

Defining and Empowering the Role of Chief Health Equity Officers

Defining and Empowering the Role of Chief Health Equity Officers

Job postings and new C-Suite openings for chief health equity officers (CHEOs) have become more and more common over the last few years. The American Medical Association announced the hiring of Aletha Maybank as its first ever chief health equity officer in 2019. In August 2021, Darrell Gray became the inaugural chief health equity officer for Elevance Health, while Nwando Olayiwola was named senior vice president and chief health equity officer at Humana. That same year in June, Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo became CalPERS’ first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. In 2022, Teladoc named Saranya Loehrer its first-ever chief health equity officer and Deloitte brought in Kulleni Gebreyes as its U.S. chief health equity officer. As organizations increasingly look to hire their own chief health equity officer, there are some important points to consider.  

What is a “chief health equity officer”? If one researches the role, various answers emerge. One “CHEO” is charged with “the execution of a comprehensive strategy to advance health equity through a whole health approach (addressing physical, behavioral, social and pharmacy needs).” Another’s mission is to embed health equity into “a matrix of strategies, including functional areas like external affairs, quality, population health, network development, and medical affairs.” Some CHEOs focus on data by using “analytics to measure, and then reduce, disparities in health coverage and monitor levels of equity and access to care” or establishing “enterprise-wide measures of equity and coordinated efforts to improve health equity across all…lines of business.” And others have broad responsibilities for “ensuring everyone in the community has access to affordable, high-quality care.”

When creating a CHEO position, it’s important to be intentional when developing the scope of a CHEO’s role. Whether the position focuses on reducing disparities in medical outcomes, taking a strategic organizational approach, a community needs approach, or using data, analytics, and evaluation to measure progress, defining what change the CHEO is responsible for driving forward is key. And while aiming to create a comprehensive role isn’t wrong, it is also important not to charge a CHEO with correcting “all equity issues” (as an umbrella term) and/or isolating the addressing of those disparities into one department or individual.

In addition to a defined scope, an effective CHEO needs to be truly empowered to make decisions and affect real change within and outside their organization. In an article discussing how to empower CHEOs, Mary Stutts, global chief inclusion and health equity officer at Real Chemistry, emphasized that “simply hiring a chief health equity officer won’t present an automatic fix to those [equity] problems, particularly if companies aren’t actually giving them adequate staff, money and authority to drive key metrics….” In another article Neel Shah, chief medical officer at Maven, further noted that some CHEO roles are “primarily to signal virtue as opposed to using these roles to create accountability, and really empowering the people in those roles to drive business metrics.” CHEOs should not be figureheads for real change, and they shouldn’t be viewed as subsets of, or another name for, other types of positions or departments within the organization either. Christopher Ausura, chief of special projects for the Health Equity Institute at the Rhode Island Department of Health, warns that “some health systems are treating it[CHEOs] more as a community relations function rather than as a line of business.”

As chief health equity officers become the norm in the C-Suite, it is imperative for the organizations creating these positions to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the CHEO, as well as give these critical leaders the power to fulfill that role and affect lasting change.

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