It’s Time for a Reckoning in the Field of Health Equity Research

My 25 years of experience in public health have made it clear: it’s time for new thinking, investments, practices, and approaches in research if a healthier and more equitable future is to be possible for all. 

I was born at a time when Black families were denied care in most hospitals. In my hometown of Kansas City, my mother gave birth to me at the Frederick Douglass Hospital, the first Black hospital West of the Mississippi and the only place my family could go for medical care. The hospital was founded by the local community—a solution to a need that the community identified. The hospital was designed to offer care to anyone in need of it. It included a teaching hospital to train medical professionals to serve the communities from which they came.

Growing up, I witnessed the Civil Rights movement gain momentum and eventually take down the Jim Crow laws. My parents brought me to sit-ins and demonstrations to demand justice. These early experiences shaped my career in academia, public health, and now in philanthropy, where a mountain of research evidence revealed ongoing and worsening health and longevity gaps. Equity belongs at the heart of our work. As evidence during the pandemic clearly showed, we cannot thrive as a nation unless everyone has a fair and just opportunity at health.

The Civil Rights movement made important progress, but equity is still out of reach for many. With the resources, technology, and brain trust that we have in 2022, we have the capability and the imperative to go farther, faster.

I offer ideas here on how we, as a public health and research field, can evolve towards equity. To ensure everyone has fair opportunities, we need people with lived and professional experiences to talk about real-world problems—and solutions. We need data and evidence to back it up. In short, we need a fundamental retooling of the field to ensure that evidence-based policymaking eradicates oppression.

The research agenda that informs bold and lasting policies and programs that improve health and health equity in the United States can no longer only be set by academic and philanthropic institutions. We must change the system to embed equity in:

  • WHO does the research: a diverse academic workforce—today and for decades to come—that encompasses varied perspectives and lived experiences

  • HOW research is done: challenging biases and conventions in research, encouraging and promoting innovation, authentically engaging community in setting priorities and shaping solutions

  • WHAT research is amplified: sharing and applying research—in the real world, in real-time—not sitting in a journal 

Despite a long-standing status quo in the field of health science research, the path to change is clear and achievable—if we have the collective will. We must:

  • Welcome and train the next generation of equity-focused researchers

  • Change academic institutions’ long-standing practices around career advancement, rigor and methodology, and community engagement

  • Commit to—and invest in—sharing actionable evidence broadly, in new ways that reach more people who can use it to inform policy and practice change

Three interrelated programs funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will help drive this change at the individual, institutional, and collective levels.

  • A new, “more-than-money” grant program, Health Equity Scholars for Action, is providing 15 early-career researchers from historically underrepresented backgrounds with the support, resources, and community necessary to thrive professionally and better contribute to and expand health equity-related research

  • Transforming Academia for Equity is a bold opportunity to equip public health schools and programs to challenge racially-biased conventions in research and academia. Seven institutions are working  to identify and change their systems that have hindered the pace and innovation of health equity research

  • Members of the Partners for Advancing Health Equity Collaborative—ranging from academia, community organizations, government agencies, media, philanthropy, and private companies—are learning from each other and sparking new collaborations to support innovation and promote action-oriented health equity research, practice, and policies

Research questions and findings can only advance equity if we design for it. A deep and collective reckoning is essential if a healthier and more equitable future is to be possible for all. There is progress happening across the research field; we remain steadfastly committed to accelerating these changes to eliminate bias and advance anti-racism in our work. If we listen to our communities, partner with them to solve problems, and welcome new people into the profession, it could be a winning formula for long-overdue justice.

Join Partners for Advancing Health Equity to help drive the advancement of our common goal: a society where everyone has the ability to live the healthiest life possible. You will collaborate and connect with people across sectors to advance solutions to health equity; access an extensive, centralized online repository of health equity resources; and, learn to advance equity within your organization.