A message from Ken Ehlert, Chief Scientific Officer, UnitedHealth Group

We’ve been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for several months. Three weeks ago, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Now, global protests are highlighting systemic racism and economic disparity in the U.S. and around the world. Our current reality is filled with disturbing images of unjust behavior, strong emotions and calls for meaningful change.

We know that the same systemic racism and inequities are present in healthcare. COVID-19 has shown the world the rates of disease, hospitalizations, complications and death are higher for Black Americans. But that isn’t new. We’ve known for a long time that diabetes, hypertension, maternal mortality, cancer and other diseases impact Black, Hispanic and Native Americans at higher rates. It would be easy to say this is due to genetic differences or social determinants of health. But that isn’t true. The reality is people of color are underrepresented in genetic databases, clinical trials and the medical profession…and as a result, they often receive different, sub-standard care.

These are strange times. The past few months and especially the past few weeks, have strained not only society, but each of us in unimaginable ways. We’ve gone from close, collegial and familial relationships to isolated, restless individuals. For some of us, the social isolation has eliminated our support structures, making it difficult to process new information, adapt and determine what to do next. That can show up as sleeplessness, anxiety, no sense of time, inexplicable anger, depression, despair and a number of other very real physical and mental impacts. Our minds struggle to make sense of the events of the past few weeks and months and how they affect our own identity. And, that hurts. For some, that hurt is greater than ever experienced before. Some need to take some time to heal and build their own resiliency, some need to know that their work is making a difference, and others need to know what to do next. All are acceptable responses.

As I have considered what we can do, what I can do, I had to acknowledge that I am not an expert in police or criminal justice systems, nor do I have any meaningful answers for widespread economic inequity. But I do have an understanding of the healthcare system and I can see ways that we can make a difference there…a difference that can create durable change that will lead others to do the same. For example, we are currently studying the effect of sickle cell trait, which is prevalent in 8-10% of African Americans, on COVID-19 with Herman Taylor, MD (Morehouse School of Medicine and former director of the Jackson Heart Study) as a co-principal investigator. Dr. Taylor is also working with us to help recruit patients into our ACE inhibitor clinical trial to ensure adequate representation from the African American community in that important work.

Through other projects we’re leading, our opportunity to directly impact and eliminate bias in the treatment of COVID-19, diabetes, colorectal cancer and other diseases is high. But we don’t need to stop there. We recently launched a data platform to accelerate disease and system learning in academic circles. We have a health record that will be used across all areas of the company. We launched a depression and anxiety app to build resiliency. We have many, many studies and pilots underway in different disease states and different parts of the healthcare system. All of them can ensure access to all communities and be designed to get better results. All of them can show a path to illuminate and eliminate systemic bias and disparity across all of society. My opportunity is to clear the path for good projects...and by working together, we will make them go.

Even in turmoil, I am an optimist. When I look at my grandsons, I have great hope for a better world.

Ken Ehlert

Ken Ehlert

Chief Scientific Officer

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