Author Archives: Najaf Ahmad

These Books on Health Equity Inform and Inspire

Aug 18, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

The bold voices featured on this reading list offer empowering perspectives on advancing racial justice and health equity.

Books as Swings

During these tumultuous times, the sweltering heat need not slow our determination to achieve health equity. In fact, these remaining summer days give us all a chance to step back and consider the many intersecting influences on health in a larger context.

One way to do that is by delving into a good book! Reading can inform and deepen our commitment to shaping communities that give everyone in America a fair and just opportunity for health and wellbeing. Several of our colleagues have authored or contributed to books that mix personal stories, on-the-ground experiences, and insightful ideas to remind us of the opportunity to make a difference.

Find space during your next getaway or staycation to delve into this sampling of works!

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Good Things Happen When Nurses Lead

May 2, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

A retired nurse CEO says we need nurses in government, on the boards of for-profits, and mentoring the next generation given their powerful role in influencing people, policies, and systems.

Mentor the Next Generation of Nursing illustration.

Maria Gomez has had her finger on the pulse of our healthcare system and the people it serves throughout her storied, 30+ year career running a community health center that serves a low-income, immigrant community in greater Washington, D.C. Maria entered the United States at age 13, started Mary’s Center after becoming a nurse, and helped grow it into a powerhouse serving 60,000 people each year. Mary’s Center helped pioneer an integrated model of healthcare, education and social services to put people on a path to good health, stability and economic independence. In 2012, President Obama presented Maria with the Presidential Citizens Medal. She retired in late 2021. Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, she reflects on the challenges facing our healthcare system, how nurses can continue leading efforts to meet them, and what we can learn from the pandemic.

What are the greatest challenges facing our healthcare system?

Today, it’s all about the numbers—the number of patients you see and the number of minutes it takes. Because that’s how you get paid. To transform lives, we need to change how we address patient needs. Providers can’t do it all in 15 minutes. Some are so overwhelmed by the numerous demands on them that they’ve grown numb to what their patients are feeling. Too many smart, incredibly passionate people who devote themselves to healthcare have become disheartened, burned out, and are even leaving the workforce. This is the most discouraged I’ve seen providers in my career.

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How a Nurse Leader Took on the Social Determinants of Health

Mar 17, 2022, 11:45 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

Trailblazing nurse and recently retired CEO of a community health center reflects on her legacy of providing care that prioritizes the social determinants of health.

Doctor and patient illustration.

Maria Gomez was 13 years old when she immigrated to the United States with her widowed mother to escape violent political turmoil in Colombia. They landed in Virginia on a snowy day with no boots, no coat, and not speaking a word of English. Together, they faced many challenges while navigating their new life. In spite of them, Maria’s gratitude and drive to give back led her to a nursing career. She ultimately joined a group of advocates in launching Mary’s Center to address gaps in access to healthcare and structural barriers that many immigrants face.

Today, Mary’s Center uses an integrated model of healthcare, education, and social services to serve patients at five clinics and two senior wellness centers in Washington, D.C. and Maryland. In 2012, President Obama presented Maria with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second highest civilian honor in the United States.

After an illustrious career, Maria retired in December of 2021. She shared reflections on how she has led efforts to serve a diverse population and insights into the challenges our healthcare system and nation face. In this interview, Maria discusses how she shaped a system of care that aims to build trust with patients and provide integrated care that addresses more than medical needs.

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Uprooting Racism to Advance Health Equity

Jan 4, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

Can we break free from a history of racism that has taken a brutal toll on health? These trailblazers offer hope through their efforts to advance racial justice and health equity.

Race, Health and Equity

In 1966 our nation’s great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., proclaimed that of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman. All these years later, this remains painfully true.

Study after study documents racism's brutal impact on health. Compared to White women, Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth, or within a year after giving birth; Indigenous women face that prospect 2 to 3 times more often than Whites. Black and Latino adults disproportionately report being treated unfairly in healthcare settings because of their race or ethnicity and Blacks experience adverse patient safety events more frequently, even in the same hospital and with comparable insurance coverage. Even the consequences of climate change do their greatest damage to people of color, who are consistently exposed to higher levels of air pollution, live in hotter neighborhoods, and face greater food insecurity as agricultural patterns shift.

The impact of structural racism—the system in which our nation’s policies, institutional practices and cultural representation perpetuate racial inequity—became glaringly more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the anguishing murder of George Floyd. In an important step to advance racial equity and justice, many states and cities across the nation have declared racism a public health crisis.

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Why Building Black Wealth is Key to Health Equity

Sep 9, 2021, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

To dismantle structural racism, says a renowned economist, our nation needs a new narrative—and systems and policies that advance racial and economic justice.

Illustration for racial wealth gap. Illustrator: Cat Willett

Darrick Hamilton, the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy at The New School, has gained national recognition for shaping policy solutions to close the racial wealth gap, which refers to how hundreds of years of structural racism have deprived Black families of resources that accumulate and transfer from one generation to the next. The typical White family has 10 times the wealth of the typical Black family and seven times the wealth of the typical Latinx family. This stark and persistent racial wealth gap has harmed generations, driven disparities and appears to be growing, even after controlling for household characteristics and long-term education and income gains by Black people.

Hamilton’s early experiences provided an ethical orientation toward justice that shaped his career as an economist. Growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant while attending the Quaker-run Brooklyn Friends School exposed him to two worlds in which fundamentally similar people experienced markedly different life trajectories—primarily due to one group benefitting from greater resources than the other.

In this Q&A, he shares powerful insights on the impact of the racial wealth gap, strategies to address it, and reflections on how events of the past year are shifting narratives and providing hope for change.

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Five Experts Reflect on the Health Equity Implications of the Pandemic

Dec 1, 2020, 12:45 PM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

As the novel coronavirus swept the globe, structural racism drove its disproportionate impact on communities of color in our nation. As we look ahead to a new year, experts weigh in with thoughts and hope for shaping a healthier, more equitable future.

Two people wearing masks facing each other.

When acclaimed Barbadian author Karen Lord envisioned life on a small island during a pandemic in her story The Plague Doctors, she never imagined that within weeks of its publication, “history would become present, and fiction real life.” Lord’s short story in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) first-ever book of fiction, Take Us to a Better Place, was written months before coronavirus emerged. With chilling prescience, it imagines a deadly infectious disease besetting the globe and follows Dr. Audra Lee as she fights to save her 6-year-old niece. The heroine confronts not just the disease but also a society that serves the wealthy at the expense of others.

This latter point was especially relevant here in the United States where COVID-19 hit communities of color dramatically harder than others. Centuries of structural racism have created numerous barriers to health including difficult living conditions; limited educational opportunity; high-risk jobs; lack of access to paid leave and disparities in care. Historical trauma has also driven deeply rooted mistrust of the medical establishment. All of these interconnected factors have magnified risk for both exposure to COVID-19 and the worst possible outcomes from the virus.

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Home Is Where Our Health Is

Jul 22, 2019, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jessica Mark, Najaf Ahmad

Where we live affects how long and how well we live. Yet, affordable housing is out of reach for too many. RWJF is addressing housing stability, equity, and health through data and research.

Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe community.

There is growing evidence that safe and secure housing is a critical factor in achieving good health. Where we live can determine whether we’re connected to: safe places to play and be active; quality jobs and schools; and transportation to get us where we need to go. Yet millions of people in America live in substandard or overcrowded housing, temporary shelters, in cars, and on streets. Disadvantages also exist for the many living in residentially segregated neighborhoods isolated from opportunity. For them and others, the inability to access quality housing and neighborhoods deepens challenges and makes it much more difficult to be healthy and break out of poverty. 

Housing’s profound effect on health is often overlooked and misunderstood. This year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), led by President and CEO Richard Besser, MD, is shining a light on the link between housing and health. In his Annual Message, Besser discusses how safe and affordable housing supports positive outcomes across the lifespan—and how unsafe and insecure housing can deepen inequity and undermine a Culture of Health. 

He shares stories from housing initiatives across the country—from Boligee, Ala., to Chelsea, Mass., to San Antonio. These examples show that when we improve the quality and affordability of housing—health and lives also improve. Creating safe and affordable housing—as an essential part of comprehensive efforts to transform impoverished neighborhoods into places of opportunity—becomes a pathway to helping communities thrive.

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Surgeon General Jerome Adams and the Power of Partnerships

Apr 26, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

The 20th United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams joined RWJF President and CEO Rich Besser to discuss how the power of partnerships can help transform communities and advance equity.

SG Jerome Adams, Richard Besser

As a child, the United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, suffered from asthma so severe that he spent months at time in the hospital, even once being airlifted to a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C. During these stays he was struck by the fact that he’d never encountered a black physician. That finally changed when as an undergraduate he met a prominent African-American doctor who had overcome his own significant life obstacles. Seeing another African-American making important contributions to the field of medicine inspired the young Jerome Adams to decide, “I can do that too.”

With that resolve, he embarked on a path that led to becoming an anesthesiologist and culminated in his appointment as the nation’s 20th surgeon general.  

Reflecting on his journey, Dr. Adams notes, “that’s why your efforts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) are so important. You’re providing mentorship and leadership opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise know how to navigate the world of public health.”

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Rich Besser’s Journey of Service

May 11, 2017, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

From his Princeton roots to his experiences as a pediatrician, public health practitioner and journalist, Rich Besser shares stories and lessons from a career dedicated to service in this Q&A.

Richard Besser stands near a mural at RWJF in Princeton, N.J.

Rich Besser was a fourth-year medical student when he found himself performing his first (and last!) solo emergency Cesarean section at a hospital tucked within a rural Himalayan village in Manali, India.

He had come to Lady Willingdon Hospital eager to learn about health problems facing people within the developing world, and worked under a gifted local surgeon, Dr. George “Laji” Varghese. Providing care for the underserved population there was no small feat. For instance, the power would often go out during surgeries, requiring someone to hold a flashlight over the operating table.

Dr. Laji one day left Rich in charge as he departed for a week-long meeting. Before leaving, as a precaution, he walked Rich through how to perform an emergency Cesarean section since they were high up in the mountains and hours away from the next health care facility.

Sure enough, a few days later a woman who’d struggled through labor for over a day arrived. A senior nurse noted that the baby’s heart didn’t sound good.

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Four Enduring Life Lessons from a Career in Public Health

Feb 17, 2016, 10:30 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

New York City’s new deputy mayor for health and human services shares how inspirational mentors and rich experiences have cultivated her career.

Herminia Palacio

She was abruptly awakened by a phone call at 5:00 in the morning as Hurricane Katrina was ravaging New Orleans. Evacuees were fleeing the devastation and arriving in Houston by the tens of thousands to escape. Herminia Palacio was then the executive director of Houston’s Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services. She had until 11:00 p.m. to figure out how to care for them.

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