Leveling the Healthcare Playing Field

Stories about how the Hartford HealthCare team cares for our communities.

By Hilary Waldman

Sarah S. Lewis is not immune to gaps in healthcare that plague communities of color and other marginalized groups in America.

“Because I am black, I am three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than a white woman. That’s an abomination,” Lewis said. “If we want to be great at healing the people we serve, we have to be honest about what’s making them sick in the first place.”

Vulnerable, marginalized, historically disadvantaged groups are less likely to receive preventive health services and often receive lower-quality care. They also have worse health outcomes for certain conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund. Health disparities afflict groups at every level of income and education.

Photo by Chris Rakoczy:
Sarah Lewis chats at a breast cancer screening.

“We’re a huge system in a pretty small state which means we can have a big impact,” Lewis said. “I want people to know that they have a champion in me and a champion in themselves.”

Lewis has built a career working toward systems change and joined HHC in June as vice president of health equity and serves as chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council. Her goal is for HHC to become a strong voice influencing programs and policies to level the healthcare playing field in Connecticut, and a national leader in highlighting health equity for hospital systems.

“Historical discrimination in housing, education, employment and other sectors have hurt systemically marginalized and excluded populations and it has a negative impact on health,” Lewis said. “When it comes to the work health systems do, we cannot stand by and let those realities remain. We have the chance to innovate and share our results to benefit others. We have to speak truth to the historical dysfunction of existing systems, beginning with the healthcare system.”

She refers to recent data revealing that the average life expectancy for residents of Northeast Hartford is 15 years less than those living less than four miles away in West Hartford Center.

Lewis’ passion was nurtured during childhood in Detroit, where she was raised in a household committed to social justice and challenging inequality. She moved to Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human biology with a concentration in healthcare policy for underserved communities, and Columbia University where she earned a master’s in public health.

Since joining HHC, she has tried to meet with people at all levels of the organization noting that, in every role, employees witness the effect of the social determinants of health from a patient with untreated diabetes who loses a leg to the person applying for financial assistance to pay a hospital bill.

She hopes staff will contact her (sarah.lewis@hhchealth.org) with suggestions for initiatives and technologies that might make the most difference. Sometimes, she said, people feel powerless because the problem is so big. But, by working together, change can happen.