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When Sutter Health formally established the Institute for Advancing Health Equity, it engaged in three core principles.  

“First, start with understanding the current situation. Measure where you are with regards to disparities with your own system. Second, organizations have to commit to action. It’s one thing to understand where you are and it’s another thing to do something about it. Commit to action and measure progress to inform your strategy. Third, you need to have a long-term commitment. This is highly complex. It’s not going to be solved overnight,” says Leon Clark, Sutter Health’s Chief Research and Health Equity Officer.  

Sutter Health, a large health system based in Northern California, took a leap toward these principles this past December when the system launched its Institute for Advancing Health Equity. The Institute will aim to accelerate the health system’s existing efforts to reduce disparities, including its Health Equity Index, which uses analytics and dynamic population data to measure disparities. It also will combine existing research efforts around COVID-19, maternal care, and health equity across the spectrum of clinical care into one dedicated organization within Sutter.   

Health Evolution interviewed Clark and Kristen Azar, RN, the Scientific Medical Director of the Institute for Advancing Health Equity, about the organization, how the Health Equity Index has been a catalyst to the larger work being done at Sutter, improving COVID-19 vaccine equity and more.  

What made Sutter Health decide to launch the Institute for Advancing Health Equity? 

Leon Clark: It’s important to note Sutter has been engaged in this work for more than a decade. It’s reflective of the size of our organization and our patient mix. We’re a majority minority from a patient base perspective. It’s part of fulfilling our mission to provide high quality care across our integrated network. It’s not something new to us. I think what’s happened and it’s happened across the country, as we experienced social unrest and as COVID was playing out, we saw tremendous disparities and outcomes. We just felt, along with many others across the country, that now was the time to act urgently to address all these problems. The establishment of the Institute was a formal way to amplify work that we’ve been doing for more than a decade. 

Read more: Less talk, more action: Health care has a long way to go post George Floyd 

Kristen Azar: The Institute is the evolution of that process and really taking it to the next level of creating a system-level coordinated approach. We are leveraging the power of our large integrated health system to really make a maximum impact.  

What are the main goals of this institute?  

Azar:  Our real goal here is to advance the science of health equity in order to achieve optimal health outcomes, not only for our Sutter patients but also to generate knowledge that can improve the health of our communities both in California and across the country. That’s our ultimate goal here. We have three areas and domains of expertise that we’re developing. We really focus on our data and insights as our first area. We really want to look at our Sutter data and our EHR data and be able to learn from it.  

That really will inform our next area, which is solutions advocacy, where we take that data and we make it actionable. We want to build solutions that really can be impactful and feasible in real-world settings to address the different opportunities we’ve identified. And by doing so, we will share that knowledge and become advocates in a greater sense beyond and within Sutter. 

The third area of expertise that we’re developing is education and training. It’s very important to us to focus on preparing the next generation of health equity researchers and clinicians, but also to look at our own care team and make sure that they feel confident, comfortable, and capable of caring for our diverse patients. We’re looking to offer them things like unconscious bias training, cultural competency training, and other trainings like that.  

We’re focused on five specific practice areas: mental health equity, maternal health equity, oncology/cancer care, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and, finally, access and care transitions. Thinking about that interface between our communities and our clinical settings, we hope to conceptualize work in those main domains.  

How are you leveraging the Health Equity Index as part of this Institute?  

Azar: The health equity index initial version really focuses on ambulatory sensitive conditions. What I mean by that is conditions that end up being treated in our emergency department that would be more optimally managed in primary care. We can prevent complications to diabetes or those types of hypertensive emergencies if we have better care upstream. We have been using that internally within Sutter on some of our dashboards and are currently in the process of evaluating how that’s really been helpful to our leaders in trying to understand the next iteration of that internally.