The Awards Program at this year’s LeadingAge Annual Meeting and Expo in New Orleans will feature a new presentation: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Award for Health Equity. The award carries a $3,000 prize.
What is health equity and who should be nominated for the Award for Health Equity? We asked Alisha Sanders, director of housing and services policy research at LeadingAge, to explain.
LeadingAge: Can you describe the new RWJF Health Equity Award?
Alisha Sanders: LeadingAge is one of 5 national membership organizations that RWJF selected this year to present its Award for Health Equity.
The award recognizes an individual or a team of 2 individuals who have worked successfully to advance one of RWJF’s primary goals: ensuring that all Americans can lead healthy lives and achieve overall well-being, no matter where they live or what their socioeconomic background.
The Award for Health Equity gives LeadingAge a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the health disparities that some older adults experience each day, and to recognize LeadingAge members that are working to reduce or eliminate those disparities.
LeadingAge: What types of initiatives will LeadingAge recognize with its RWJF award?
Alisha Sanders: We’ll present the RWJF Award for Health Equity to a nominee implementing an initiative that:
- Aligns with RWJF’s vision for achieving health equity for all Americans.
- Provides solutions to improve health outcomes for people most affected by health disparities.
- Demonstrates success in changing systems that impact health and well-being.
LeadingAge: What does it mean to align with RWJF’s vision for achieving health equity for all Americans?
Alisha Sanders: The Healthy People 2020 initiative provides a commonly accepted definition of health equity as the "attainment of the highest level of health for all people."
We’re looking for nominees whose initiatives are striving to address avoidable health inequities and health disparities among older adults. Nominees should be able to demonstrate that they have sought a way to increase access to services, supports and opportunities that enable older people to lead healthy lives. How nominees achieve this goal will vary, depending on the type of provider they represent, and the unique needs of older people in their service area.
LeadingAge: The Award for Health Equity will recognize solutions that improve outcomes for older people most affected by health disparities. Who are these older people?
Alisha Sanders: Most American communities are home to a distinct group of elders who face significant barriers to living healthy lives. Those vulnerable groups include:
- Older people living in poverty.
- Older people of color.
- Older people who don’t speak English as their first language.
- Older people with low health literacy.
- Older people who are socially isolated.
Across the country, these groups experience more—and more serious—health issues than the overall population of older people. On the local level, there may be additional groups of elders who are also vulnerable to experiencing health disparities.
LeadingAge: What kind of solutions are you looking for?
Alisha Sanders: There’s a broad constellation of services, supports and resources that influence an older person’s ability to live a healthy life and achieve overall well-being. This is particularly true for elders who already experience health disparities.
For example, programs that increase an older person’s access to formal health care services, like primary care, represent a very important way to increase health equity. These programs could “increase access” through such avenues as providing transportation to health offices and clinics, or by helping older adults navigate the health care or insurance system, understand a doctor’s orders, or take steps to manage a chronic disease.
Providers of aging services can also reduce health disparities by collaborating with community partners to address social factors that could be standing in the way of better health for older adults. For example, nutrition programs can provide critical access to healthy foods, or teach older adults how to prepare nutritious meals that could help them prevent or manage chronic disease.
In addition, local partners can work together to create systems for older adults that help:
- Reduce isolation that often leads to physical and mental health issues.
- Address cultural barriers to using needed physical or mental health services.
- Improve access to physical fitness activities that can help older adults maintain or improve physical function.
- Enhance the quality, safety and accessibility of housing.
- Ensure that the needs of vulnerable older adults are considered during local conversations about community planning or public health.
These are just a few examples. There could be any number of additional ways to expand opportunities for vulnerable older adults to achieve good health and well-being.
LeadingAge: The winner of the Award for Health Equity must demonstrate success in changing systems. What does that mean?
Alisha Sanders: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been very explicit about its intention to recognize initiatives that move beyond a provider’s internal focus on serving its own residents or clients in a siloed manner.
Instead, RWJF wants to recognize initiatives that can help improve systems for promoting good health. RWJF also recognizes the interconnected nature of health and social issues, and believes that promoting good health requires moving beyond the traditional health care system.
Given this preference, a successful nominee will most likely be a program or initiative that:
- Involves community partners or cross-sector collaboration. You can’t change a delivery system all by yourself. You need to work with other providers or entities that also operate within that system and can influence the health of a community or population.
- Leads to sustainable change. We’re looking for programs that have the potential to drive changes in practice or policy at the local and state levels. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But as a first step, nominees should be working to influence how their local communities assist vulnerable elders.
- Can be adopted and scaled. We would like to see programs that can be spread to other providers or communities in some way. The initiative should not depend on such unique mechanisms that it could not be adapted in other places.
LeadingAge: How do members nominate someone for the RWJF Award for Health Equity?
Alisha Sanders: LeadingAge member organizations can use our online application form to nominate an individual or a 2-person team for the RWJF Award for Health Equity. Deadline for nominations is April 30. LeadingAge members can contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions.
Geralyn Magan is a writer who lives in Glenelg, MD.