AHA award winner focuses on social, medical disparities in pandemic
For Dr. Keith Churchwell, a cardiologist and president of Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, COVID-19 is "telling us a lot about ourselves."
The longtime hospital administrator and American Heart Association volunteer leader considers the pandemic a stress test on society in general and the public's health in particular.
"COVID has illuminated the issue of health disparities across the country," Churchwell said. "The issues of socioeconomics, travel and nutrition are contributing to a higher risk for our Black and brown communities, not only in terms of COVID but diabetes, cardiovascular disease and overall morbidity and mortality.
"In the last 10 or 20 years, we have made significant strides across all populations in the reduction of mortality in cardiovascular disease, given the work that the AHA and others have done. The overall improvement is not equal — African Americans still lag," he said.
He said such discrepancies demand a re-evaluation "to expand our ability to address problems that are not only medical, but social, because the social have an impact on the medical health of the individual and the population."
Churchwell's leadership, expertise and commitment to greater health equity, and his impact on the AHA and its regions in charting a path to address structural racism and transform communities, will be recognized when he receives the Award of Meritorious Achievement in a virtual ceremony June 22. The AHA presents the award to individuals and organizations for contributions of national significance.
From his position at Yale New Haven, Churchwell has evaluated both the hard data and "our day-to-day experience" of the pandemic and how it has affected different populations differently. This knowledge has helped inform and refocus AHA strategies to best address the social determinants of health — the conditions in which people are born and live. He was instrumental in drafting the AHA presidential advisory "Call to Action: Structural Racism as a Fundamental Driver of Health Disparities," a milestone for the organization.
"COVID is starting a national conversation in multiple places, not just health care," he said. "I was happy and honored to play a role in the development of the advisory."
Churchwell also has spearheaded restructuring at the AHA. He was president of the Southeast Affiliate from 2010 to 2014 and president of the former Founders Affiliate from 2017 to 2019. As an ex-officio member of the Eastern States board of directors, he helped reorganize the former Founders, Great Rivers and Mid-Atlantic affiliates into the new Eastern States region, which serves more than 74 million people in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
"Being part of the transition for the new operating model went remarkably smoothly," he said.
He credits the realignment for providing the organization's volunteers stronger voices and better tools and resources to serve their communities.
"My analogy is to a shark," Churchwell said. "Sharks have been around for 70 million years, but if they stop swimming, they die.
"They have to keep moving. So does an organization in a constantly changing landscape."