Covid Exacerbated Racial Inequities in Health Care. Can Startups Help?
(Bloomberg) -- A key finding from a health care study this month was poignant: “Racial and ethnic inequities are pervasive across all state health systems,” according to the report from the Commonwealth Fund, a health care foundation.
The Covid-19 pandemic only extended the divide, the health care foundation found in an extensive study of U.S. data. Average life expectancy for Black and Hispanic people fell more sharply compared with White people.
Such racial health inequities have plagued communities of color for decades. Eddwina Bright experienced them firsthand seven years ago when she gave birth to her first daughter, and the ordeal prompted her to action.
As a young Black professional, she already knew about widespread discrimination in the health care system, and some statistics gave her good reason to be concerned. According to the National Institutes of Health, the maternal mortality rate for Black women is 3.5 times higher than it is for White women. Black women also experience higher rates of preventable disease and chronic illness, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease — conditions that impact maternal health.
So when it came time to deliver her second child, Bright did her research, finding a culturally sensitive provider who could make her feel comfortable, heard and safe. Now she wants to make sure other women have the same opportunity through a New York-based startup she co-founded called Health in Her Hue. The digital platform aims to bring together Black patients with Black doctors.
Bright partnered with Ashlee Wisdom, who has a background in public health. The pair started Health in Her Hue in 2018 with a mission to create what is essentially a WebMD for Black women — a platform that connects patients and providers through an online directory and virtual courses on mental, reproductive and dermatological health. The resources, excluding the doctor directory, are packaged as a membership that includes tailored content, consultations and care recommendations for about $50 a month.
“We started building Health in Her Hue, which connected the dots between our lived experiences and how that affects our health outcomes,” Wisdom said.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted social and racial injustice and inequity in the health care system. It also spurred investment interest in health and wellness in general. The confluence of those events would suggest that raising money for a startup aimed at helping minorities with health care would be an easy pitch. In the third quarter of 2020, 103 technology-based companies in the health and wellness sector raised $2.3 billion in venture capital, according to PitchBook, a market research firm.
But Covid-19 had a disproportionate effect on female founders — even as the industry was growing, women-led companies were receiving a smaller portion of funding and Black women received even less than 1%. Bright and Wisdom found themselves facing the same obstacles that minority women founders often confront.
Only 4% of the venture capital workforce is Black, and 3% of lead investors are Black, according to the National Venture Capital Association, a trade group. Despite the odds, Health in Her Hue was able to raise $1 million in August, led by Seae Ventures and Genius Guild’s Greenhouse Fund.
Genius Guild founder Kathryn Finney said an increase in Black investors will help boost capital to Black-founded startups. She said a common trope in the venture capital world is that people invest in younger versions of themselves, and that’s exactly what she did when she backed Wisdom’s company. “This is like me 10 years ago,” Finney said.
The neglect Black women face in the health care system affects everyone. Finney pointed out how the Covid-19 vaccine rollout was slowed because there weren’t enough Black people in the trials. The problem of discrimination and mistrust infects every level of the health care system, not only touching Black patients but Black providers, too. Wisdom and Bright said they face a pipeline issue in building their directory, encountering swathes of the U.S. where Black women physicians simply aren’t to be found.
There are several reasons for the shortage of Black female doctors, many of which stem from the racism they face, said Magdala Chery, a physician who has worked closely with Wisdom and Bright to develop content for Health in Her Hue. Myths about racial differences in physique and pain tolerance contribute to improper care for Black mothers, said Heather Irobunda, an OB/GYN unaffiliated with the startup.
As Health in Her Hue expands — and it sees potential markets in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe — Wisdom and Bright are also aiming toward creating physical clinics . Chery said such clinics could empower Black female providers and lure new physicians.
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