Reducing Racial Disparities and Improving Health Equity


In recent weeks and months, across the country, and here in Southwest Michigan, many have struggled to figure out what can be done to help eliminate systemic racism and the inequities it creates. Racial injustice is harming health and shortening the lives of African Americans in Berrien County by 5.1 years for women and 9.6 years for men. This translates into more than 61,000 years of life lost for Black women and more than 110,000 years of life lost among Black men.

As a health care system dedicated to improving health, inspiring hope, and saving lives, Lakeland has developed a four-part approach which commits resources, leadership, transparency and engagement dedicated to reducing racial disparities and improving health equity. A $50 million Health Equity Fund was established using monies set aside and invested from operations over generations. The interest earned on the fund will provide the budget for health equity work locally.

What is health equity? Health equity is the absence of persistent differences in health between groups of people that are created by social conditions such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness. It means all people—regardless of racial or ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, residential location, national origin, or sex or gender—can achieve an optimal level of health.

“Health equity calls for us to provide resources and create opportunities needed for good health, especially in those parts of our community that are most challenged by poor health,” said Lynn Todman, PhD, vice president health equity, Spectrum Health Lakeland. “It calls for us to create conditions that lead to permanent changes in health status.”

Some examples of health equity work at Lakeland include:

  • The GROWTH (Guided Real-World Orientation and Work Training at the Hospital) program which provides mentorship, professional competency and training, and health care career exploration to African American and Latinx students.
  • A virtual mental health series, conducted in partnership with the Healthy Berrien Consortium and Community Grand Rounds, which explores a range of mental health topics with a focus on the unique experiences of communities of color dealing with adversity such as the COVID-19 pandemic and injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Community influencer communications project provides local opinion makers with health-related information which they can circulate through their own community networks.
  • Neighborhood-based health homes provide participants with access to free blood pressure screenings, personal health coaching sessions, and discussions about key medical topics through a partnership with local barber shops, community centers, and low-income housing facilities. (On pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Community Grand Rounds is a speaker series with workshops and other events that work to help increase understanding of the link between structural racism and health, as well as other topics related to health equity and population health.
  • The Veggie Van provides free, locally grown fruits and vegetables to hundreds of people who otherwise have limited access to fresh produce through a collaboration between Spectrum Health and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids in partnership with Spectrum Health Lakeland and the YMCA of Greater Michiana.
  • Brave Talks are small gatherings and informal groups of community members which focus on developing and deepening our collective understanding of structural racism and its impact on the health of our community.

Are you interested in learning more about this work, or things you can do to make a difference in your community? Visit the new population health website at or email to learn more.

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