Celebrate the joy of health
UnitedHealthcare is partnering with ESSENCE Fest to celebrate the joy of living a healthy life. #UnitedInJoy
A joyful life starts with better health
We're focused on empowering and supporting women as they embark on their health and personal development journey. Let's explore ways you can bring health and joy to your life.
The Wealth and Power Stage (powered by UnitedHealthcare) featured a discussion between Dr. Margaret-Mary Wilson, Executive Vice President & Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealth Group, and Caroline Wanga, Chief Executive Officer of ESSENCE, about the disparities Black women experience and what it will take to achieve health equity.
[Text On Screen – Essence Wealth & Power Featuring Global Black Economic Forum Conversations]
[Text On Screen – Essence Wealth & Power Featuring Global Black Economic Forum Conversations, #ESSENCEFEST, Essence Festival of Culture, New Orleans, Louisiana, Presented by Coca-Cola]
I’m going to bring back to the stage the CEO of Essence Communications,
[Text On Screen – Richelle Carey, Journalist/Host]
Ms. Caroline Wanga. Let me make one correction on the fly. The person that she will be having a wonderful conversation with, the chief medical officer of UnitedHealth Group, Doctor Margaret-Mary Wilson.
I mean, come on. I know you ate and stuff. We good out here in these streets? Listen to you. We outside. We outside, bish.
[Text On Screen – Caroline Wanga, CEO of Essence]
So I have the pleasure today of introducing a woman that I admire and is a much better human than myself. So I'm going to tell you a little bit about who the organization she represents is but first, I'm going to bring her out. And this woman is a Black woman who is the chief medical officer of one of the largest healthcare companies in the world. So will you join me in welcoming Doctor Margaret-Mary Wilson.
[Text On Screen – Essence Festival of Culture, New Orleans Louisiana, Presented by Coca-Cola, Essence Wealth & Power Featuring Global Black Economic Forum Conversations, Global Black Economic Forum, Margaret-Mary Wilson, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President at UnitedHealth Group, Saturday July 2, Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Find out more at EssenceFestival.com | #ESSENCEFEST]
So y’all are about to see two sisters with different paths talk about paths, because y’all got paths to whatever it is you want to be. First of all, you have many choices on where in the globe you can be on any given day because of the change you drive and the work that you do. And on this particular day you chose to join us. And it's not just those of us here in the room and our cousins right outside over there, it’s also the ones that are watching the virtual live stream that has had in past years 45 million views and 65 million views.
So before I do anything else, sis, I just want to say a heartfelt community thank you for making the time in the many places you could be, to come be with us. I know where your choices sit. I want you to start with one very simple question. Who is, who is Doctor because I’m not going to not say your first name. I’m going to say sister Doctor, but I’m not going to not say doctor, right? So who is Doctor Margaret-Mary Wilson?
First of all, Caroline, let me say thank you. Thank you. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be but here. Probably like me, I come from a long generation of strong Black women and this is home. There’s nothing more important.
Who am I? I'm Victoria's daughter. I never let myself forget that. Victoria was my mother. She died two years ago.
She was a single mother, divorced. Became single; my father walked out on her. She couldn't read or write.
She struggled financially and she was poor after my father left. But the one thing she knew was that she was not going to let me walk her path. And that's who I am at the core. My mother put me through medical school. I got into medical school at 16 and I became a doctor in Nigeria. It was a hard life. Doctors weren't paid much. I didn't have a lot of money. I had actually very little money. But that started my walk, my search for answers. I worked in Nigeria. And Caroline, something happens, when as a young doctor in my early twenties, babies are dying, mothers are dying. Something happens. It pushed me to search for more. And I owe my journey through medicine to that. That was the start of my journey.
How does how does a young person whose mother did everything she could to provide for her, but probably always maybe felt like there wasn't enough to get to provide, create a young person who then believes that they can be a doctor? Talk me through what you have said about the strength of your mother and what she did to raise you, and then this idea of you deciding to become a doctor. What happened?
Quite frankly, I didn't believe I could be a doctor. One of my uncles asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and it sounded like a great thing to say at that time. I was seven years old. I said a doctor.
Oh yeah. The immigrant careers are to be a lawyer, doctor, or an engineer. If you ain’t one of those three things, you might as well be in kindergarten. So I understand now why your answer would have been doctor because you were just picking one of the three.
I picked one.
But he then said to me, “Oh, you can't do that. It's not a profession for girls.” And at that point, I didn't know what it would take but I was determined to prove him wrong. And that was it. You throw in a bit of grit, you throw in a bit of determination, step-by-step you get there.
So you probably were one of few women on the journey to medical school. What impact did that have, feeling like more of an only then amongst folks that you identified with as you went to go through doctoral school? Because then I'm going to ask, how do you end up then running, well, this my word. You know we always going to blow it up. I'm like how you end up running the industry of the world? But that's how we celebrate people. But let's start by how you went through the process of becoming a doctor, as a woman, a Black woman, in a field that doesn't have that much of texture in identities and representation?
Well, the interesting thing is that I went to medical school in Nigeria so we were all Black. So that took care of that.
Well, there you go. That’s touché, girl. All right. Okay, okay.
But we were a class of about 200 and only 30 of us were women so it was a hard walk. But what it did show me was that medicine was not impossible for women.There was nothing gender specific about it. And I was determined to do something, I didn't know what, to increase gender diversity. And it's fortunate, it's just coincidence that decades later, I work with an enterprise that's doing just that. I don't know if you're aware that a month ago, UnitedHealth Group committed to $100 million.
What's that number again?
To do what?
Basically, it is to advance diversity and equity in the clinical workforce over the next ten years. And it’s not just about doctors.
What else is it about?
It’s about doctors and nurses and mental health professionals.
Hallelujah for the mental health professionals.
Professionals as well.
So let’s stay there because you heard me boast because I like to say I really fun friends, about you leading the healthcare industry of the world. But for those that care about facts, which is not me, tell this audience who is UnitedHealth Group and UnitedHealthcare? Most of them probably have interacted with part of it, but can you just describe who that is so we can talk about what is the significance of that entity committing that number of dollars to that mission? Who is UnitedHealthcare and UnitedHealth Group?
UnitedHealth Group, I like to start off by describing, is a company with a mission that should speak to all of us in this room. Our mission is really simple. It's about helping people live healthier lives and helping health care systems work better for everyone, every single person. At the heart of our mission is health equity. We comprise UnitedHealthcare, which is the benefits company. We manage benefits for the people that we serve. And we also comprise Optum, which covers the spectrum when it comes to care delivery and service delivery for members as well.
So how would have the everyday person have interacted with a product within UnitedHealthcare? Is it likely their health insurance? Where would they have received one of the products you guys provide?
It's interesting because we touch all aspects of the health care arc. Most people will associate UnitedHealth Group with insurance. UnitedHealthcare. And there are others though, who were actually receiving care in facilities and the care delivery system of UnitedHealth Group, which is known as Optum, who may not even realize that that’s UnitedHealth Group. Some people get their prescriptions from Optum Rx, which is our pharmacy service. And we have a mental health business as well, Optum Behavioral Health. So we touch pretty much every aspect of health care.
And I would also say that that probably means most people, at least in the United States, are probably in interaction with your products at some point in time, that there's probably fewer people that have not leveraged one of you guys’ products than have.
We touch about 146 million lives in the United States.
I think a couple of you all are in the 146 million. So I'm just saying that she helps design what helps keep you healthy. That's my version of it. Right, and we got a sister sitting at the top of that. If that is the size and scale, why would a company of that size still decide that at a $100 million commitment to make sure that the way that healthcare is provided is really working for all. Why is that important? Because I think everybody in this audience, and I’m going to have you raise your hand even if I can’t see it, has had issues as a Black person getting through the healthcare system? Whether it be getting care, finding care, having coverage, like my doctor, he don't like me, he don't care that I'm Black, he thinks I’m white, and everything else in-between. Right? It’s just me? Oh, it’s just me then. I’m trying to help you have a better health experience. So with that, what are the barriers you guys have identified and how does that $100 million change that story?
It changes the story fundamentally because everyone here, most people are like me. I'm a Black, African immigrant, lesbian, legally married, living in the state of Texas. And when my wife and I moved to Texas from New York, we needed a doctor. Who did we look for? A doctor who got us. A doctor who looked like us. A doctor who represented us in one way or the other.
So you a doctor, you a Black doctor looking for a Black doctor.
Somebody, Black, female, LGBTQ, or maybe even white male and not LGBTQ, but who was used to dealing with people like me. Take a look at maternal health. Let me give you an example of maternal health.
Because you all just trying to get healthy and they need the secrets.
If you look across America today, a Black woman who goes into have a baby is about three times more likely to die…
Black maternal health stat.
Than a Hispanic or white woman. Those are the glaring statistics. Similarly, a Black infant is 2.5 times more likely to die than a white infant.
A Black infant, say that again.
A Black infant is 2.5 times more likely to die than a white infant.
Our babies will die and the mamas will die
[Text On Screen – Caroline Wanga, CEO of Essence]
at a higher rate than white babies and white mamas.
Now, watch what happens when you introduce a Black physician.
It halves the mortality rates of the infants. So it makes a difference.
It saves lives.
It saves lives. You know, the people that we serve as clinicians need to look like, we need to look like them. It saves lives. So when you see United committing to that amount, $100 million, it is because we recognize that if we are going to change the health care system, if we're going to transform health care, then it must be equitable and the workforce must be diverse. And that's why we're investing in that.
So you have an audience of people that hear that and it resonates with their experience in the healthcare system. I just wish I had a care provider that understood me, that got me. To your point, which was very valid, doesn’t have to look like me but you better understand me culturally because that's what we're saying, right? You can be not white, not Black, but you ought to understand culturally who I am. You sit in a position with an organization that can make the commitment with those dollars to create a different kind of experience for us. But the folks out here don't have a $100 million and some of them may work at UHC but a lot of them don't. So if they are trying to navigate a healthcare system that has those barriers, what is your guidance to their health journey as you guys try to solve the problems so that they can stay healthy as you solve the problems?
Here's one of the things that we've realized and what I will say to all of us here.
[Text On Screen – Dr. Margaret-Mary Wilson, Chief Medical Officer at United Health Group]
Think about how we manage wealth, wealth, and power. We take accountability for it. Everybody here I'm sure can tell me what's in their bank accounts to the last cent. But I bet very few people can tell me what their blood pressure was this morning. So when we talk about wealth and we talk about power, let's not forget health. That is the third stool. And let's think about it like how we think about a health portfolio. You know, I mean, even though I don't have a lot of hair, the one thing that I'm really picky about is my haircut. So I'm not going to let my barber get it wrong.
And you’re not taking just anybody's new barber. You be like, mm.
Right? So think about it like that. We empower ourselves. I empower myself when I go in to cut my hair. I will also empower myself when I go to seek health care. The consumer is what this should be about. The person, you. Not the doctor, not the healthcare system. So this is really about what? Take your power back. Empower yourself within the healthcare system. We need to hear your collective voice. I look out in this audience, I think about Essence, I think about the Black woman, and I am grateful for you. I am grateful for your voices because your voices must be heard as we collectively seek to transform health care.
Here's what I love about what you said. We know how to advocate for ourselves. We just don't apply it everywhere. Because what I’m going to tell you is when I go get this done, I'm watching every stroke, every strand, every rubber band like. And at the end I'm shown a mirror about if she got it right. She does the same style every time and I'm still looking like. So what you're telling us is we know the behavior of being meticulous about fighting for what we like. And if it's off, I'll say to her, it's off center. We got to fix that. The ball's not big enough, my color’s draining, whatever it may be. And we expect the person to change it because we are, it's a fee for service. You are saying that that same boldness and audacity and indignance and self-empowerment should be the way that we interact with those that provide our care.
That's exactly what I'm saying. And I'm also saying it's about value. Your healthcare system should deliver value to you. And what might be valuable to you, may not be valuable to you. It's about value.
How do they know if the health care system is delivering value? Because I might be like it’s value because I haven't been to the emergency room yet this year, as if that's the way to do preventative care. But I might say that's the healthcare system providing value. What do you mean when you say your health care system should be providing value for you?
Value is measured in several ways. One would be the outcomes. So you feel better, your blood pressure is controlled, your diabetes is controlled. The second is the experience, your experience as a person. The third is the doctor's experience as a person. And the fourth, let's not forget that, is that you can actually afford the care. I don't care how good care is, if you can’t afford it, you don’t get it. And you can access it.
I love a fact that I learn hanging out with my friends at UHC for the last year and one of the things they've enlightened me on is that the number one cause of bankruptcy, financial bankruptcy, is health care costs. The number one cause of financial bankruptcy is health care cause, which means then to get to Black wealth, you got to get your health together.
Correct. Very well said.
Right? And then I heard you say and I then I want you to give this audience something they can take away that you really want them hear. But then what I also heard you say is, we don't have a gap in understanding how to advocate for ourselves. We are not incapable. We are not at a deficit. We don't need to go take a class on how to advocate for ourselves. We do it with our hair, we do it with who we want to be in a relationship with, some of us, we do it. I mean, no, shame. Hypothetically, nobody in this room. But my point is you're telling us that we actually have everything we need already to go about ensuring that our health care delivers value so that our health becomes something that we don't have to worry about interrupting our wealth.
And then as you give the closing statement, what I also heard loud and clear from you is that for those of us that have gone to the doctor four times to try to get the same test and the doctor hasn't figured it out, maybe we don't go to the same doctor for the fourth time. Pay attention.
Pay attention. Exactly.
So Doctor Margaret-Mary Wilson, the leader of care in the world, I don't care about facts, in the world. This is our world doctor. This is everybody’s doctor. What is something you haven't shared or want to share that you want this audience and the audience across the diaspora watching this with us, to know, as we take our seat and celebrate the chief that you are on our behalf? What do you want them to know in parting?
What I would like everyone listening to know, is that it's possible. Here's what I will ask. We're not going to get this done without you. Somewhere, somewhere there is a child in your life, somewhere there's a person in your life who is thinking, who is maybe watching this and is thinking, how can I help? See, we can give all the money that we want to give, but I ask you to use your voice to encourage others to come into the clinical realm, the workforce. That's where we need diversity. That's where we need it built out. Lots of young people out there, especially women, are discouraged from attaining their dreams because someone somewhere, like my uncle, told them it was not possible. I'd like you all to leave here thinking and sharing the message that it's all possible. Caroline, you and I are sitting here today. I never thought I would be sitting here.
Neither did I. You wouldn’t have been able to pay me money. Have the unmitigated gall to believe in a future other people can’t see. Think about the healthcare audience. Advocate for your health. Be healthy so you can be wealthy. Ladies and gentlemen, the doctor of the world, Doctor Margaret-Mary Wilson. Thank you, sis. We are proud of you. We love you. We’re cheering you on. We're going to be healthier because of you. We appreciate you being here.
Thank you so much.
I hope you guys enjoyed it.
[Text On Screen – Essence Wealth & Power Featuring Global Black Economic Forum Conversations, Sponsors include AT&T, Dove, Crown Coalition, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Geico, Google, MasterCard, McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden, Tylenol, UnitedHealthcare]
The Wellness House (powered by Optum) celebrated the joy of mind and body health which included a panel discussion between Dr. Cleopatra Lightfoot-Booker, Chief Clinical Operations Leader, and Dr. Yusra Benhalim, Senior Medical Director, with Optum Behavioral Health.
[Text On Screen – Essence Wellness House Powered by Optum]
[Text On Screen – Essence Wellness House Powered by Optum, #ESSENCEFEST]
Right now, I want to bring my colleagues out, Doctor Cleopatra Lightfoot Booker. She’s a psychologist.
[Text On Screen – Roxanne Battle]
And Doctor Yusra Benhalim. Both of them work in mental health. Can we have applause for them. Please have a seat there. And what we’re talking about is mental health. Welcome, ladies.
I’d say that Cleo is an Issa Rae lookalike. What we’re talking about is mental health. And coming out of the pandemic in the last 30 months or so, we saw Black folks really being affected by the isolation, by demands for work, work from home, caring for children, balancing it all, and it really fell on our community really hard. So we want to talk about how to find the joy in mental health. That’s what we’re going to spend about 20 minutes talking about. And then at the end of our talk we’re actually going to take you through a lovely mediation to help you feel relaxed and help to bring some Black joy into your life. Cleo, I’ll start – Yusra, actually, I’ll start with you. When we talk about mental health, and both of you, obviously, will have an opportunity to answer this, what’s the impact as clinicians, as doctors who are on the front line, what are you seeing with respect to behavioral health and communities of color?
Sure. Thank you so much, Roxanne.
[Text On Screen – Dr. Yusra Benhalim]
It’s a pleasure to be here joining you all. I’m so grateful that we’re continuing to have the conversation about mental health and mental wellbeing. And so I think it’s no surprise to anyone that even before the pandemic, communities of color were really facing health inequities accessing the healthcare system, and especially the mental healthcare system. Everything that we’ve been through during the pandemic, as much as we want it to be over, the truth is that we’re still seeing more and more people who are struggling. Struggling with depression and suicide and substance use and misuse. And again, thinking about communities of color, in particular, and why they continue to be more vulnerable, is that although we’re moving mountains and having more of these conversations, I think that stigma is still very much an ongoing challenge. So we’ve reduced stigma but we haven’t reduced it enough, especially in communities of color. So thinking about shame, thinking about mental health symptoms as a weakness, and then thinking about all the challenges that are still in the system that keep people from being able to get the support and the care that they need. And then I think another big thing, Roxanne, is that we talk a lot about diversity, the importance of being able to look at our healthcare system and see people who look like us or people who have shared experiences. But it’s even more than that. It’s important for us to think about how we’re going to shift things transformationally so that we’re talking about cultural competency, cultural sensitivity. So we don’t have to look like each other. We don’t have to have the same experiences all the time in order to be able to connect and say I want to understand your experience. I want to be able to help you understand your health, your mental health, on your terms.
You’re really speaking about making the effort to understand.
Yes. And I think what we’ve seen in the past several years is more people are speaking up but I still believe that there are many people who are not raising their hands. Because of stigma and because we don’t feel like there’s people out there who really understand us.
Talk about the stigma, Cleo. Particularly in Black communities, there’s this thought that if I reach out for mental health help, I’m weak or that I don’t believe in my God and that’s an insult to my faith system.
Talk about faith. We know that as a Black community, our faith is at the core
[Text On Screen – Dr. Cleo Booker]
of a lot of us. It gives us our strength. We often rely upon the spirit. We say god help me and he will heal me. He will take everything away. For a long time because our faith is so strong, we thought that it was our faith that could heal us completely. And I think what is happening now in our community is that people are recognizing that God put people here on Earth to help us. It is not about going at it by yourself. God put therapists here, psychiatrists here, doctors here, so that you don’t have to be alone. And that’s what we’re seeing now is more people actually recognizing it’s okay for me to reach out for help and it’s not about just praying it away. Girl, go pray it away. You’ll be fine. No, no, no. Sometimes you actually do need to reach out for help and then just recognize that God put us here for a reason. The other thing is telling your story is really helpful as well. So instead of trying to keep it in, instead of just praying away, talking to God is important. He heals us. He wants us to talk to him. But at the same time, talking to people that you can relate to is also important, and being able to tell the story that you’re going through. Once you start talking to other people, you realize that you’re not alone.
Particularly, talking to people you can relate to, Yusra, you brought up a really good point that we all don’t have to look the same and have the same experiences to understand one another but we do have to make that effort to be culturally sensitive. And so I know that Optum, as I mentioned in the introduction, is making a huge effort to increase the pipeline of clinicians and doctors and psychiatrists and doctors and people who can really close that gap. Can both of you talk a little bit more about what’s being done systematically and, for example, inside Optum, to really help our people get the help they need?
We’re really proud of the work that we’re doing. Do you want to start it off?
Sure. I’ll take part of that. This is what gets me excited and this is why I get up every day. As much as I know I can make an impact with the little things that I do, it’s important that I recognize that Optum and United are really putting their money where their mouth is. If we’re really going to make a change, it has to be big and it has to be something that we’re intentional about. I’m happy to share that the United Health Foundation has made a commitment for 10 years and $100 million to really intentionally invest in the healthcare system to increase the diversity, to have programs that can really train the clinicians of the future to be culturally sensitive, culturally aware, so that we can build that inclusive healthcare system that we are trying to have today but we know that is going to take this huge shift in order for us to have it, not just for ourselves in the future, but for the next generations as well.
People will more likely feel comfortable in therapy when they’re working with somebody that looks like them and they feel that somebody understands them. We as an organization, Optum and United Health Group, recognize that. And that’s one of the reasons why we know that in order to actually change the system, we have to infuse the system, the healthcare system, with more people that look like us, that look like those that are using the healthcare system. And so that’s where that $100 is really going to help build up the diversity of the clinical workforce because that’s the only way that we’re really going to change it.
So let’s talk about the connection between mental health and physical health. We have to get to the point where we destigmatize and we normalize the conversation about I’m not at my best self today, just the same way you talk about if I broke my wrist or sprained my ankle. We would talk about I’m having some issues that I need to talk about. We normalize that conversation. One of the things as Black women that we often face is the superwoman trope, that we have to carry it all. We’ve got to be the mom. We’ve got to work the job. We’ve got to take care of everybody else and we put ourselves low on the list. Cleo, you and I talked about this during the pandemic. It was hard on us. We’re in the field of mental health and it was hard for us.
Yeah, definitely. When I think back to the pandemic and COVID, when you talk about mental and physical health, I’ll tell you all a story. So there was a point where – I’m a mom of three boys, three African American boys, and it was a time where COVID was high, we had George Floyd. I was trying to protest. I was trying to test my kids what it meant, what was happening in the world. And I felt like I was trying to be that superwoman. I was trying to be there for my husband, who is here, the love of my life. Black love, hello. But I was trying to be that superwoman. I was trying to be that wife, that mom. I was trying to be a social advocate. And I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And I didn’t even recognize what was happening at the time is that I was going through anxiety myself, as a mental health professional. I didn’t feel like exercising. I slept in. I was clearly going through something and I didn’t recognize it. Well, talk about Black love, my husband said, what is it that you want to do? How can you get your joy back? And I tell you all what I started doing, so here’s the physical health connection. I love to dance. So I started twerking. I started taking twerk dance classes. Twerk is an artform of movement where you learn how to utilize your body in different ways. Most people when you say twerk, you think of other celebrities like Cardi B, but it is actually an artform. But it helped me release all of that physical stress that I was going through and I’ve kept it up ever since. And so that is my way of connecting my physical health as well as my emotional wellbeing,
[Text On Screen – Dr. Cleo Booker]
is to make sure that I’m doing something that gives me joy. And twerking is what gives me joy every Thursday.
You may have to perform for us, I don’t know. And Yusra, you were talking about just the distress of getting ready to go on a trip, a business trip, coming down here and making sure we’re on point for everything we have to do. We were teasing you yesterday because you were very methodical about addressing your mental health. Do you want to share a little bit about what you shared with us the other day?
Sure. My story is a little different but I think we ended up in sort of a similar place. It will not end in twerking. And so before COVID, I have always been an athlete. I’ve been a road runner. Whenever I travel, I hit the roads of any city I go in. So I always used to just pack my shoes, basically. And then I ended up getting COVID before we really knew what COVID was and then long COVID. And so what I realized was how important my physical movement throughout my life as a road runner, as someone who did high intensity training,
[Text On Screen – Dr. Yusra Benhalim]
I didn’t realize that that was my coping skill until it was taken away. And so I ended up, I’m a psychiatrist, I was in the pandemic. I was physically unhealthy, and I found myself now also kind of thinking why am I not happy right now? Why am I not able, as a superwoman, to keep pushing through? And so what I realized was I had been doing it all wrong and not even knowing it. What I’ve learned is that we can’t just have the one thing. We’re going to add something to your twerking list by the time you leave New Orleans. We can’t just sort of say, I’m going got go big or go home. There’s this one thing that I always do that I have to do and that is what I do for my emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. And so what I’ve had to learn because I really had no choice, I still can’t hit the road running, is that I decided to not take that go big or go home superwoman approach. I started to look at things that were small and I started to say, how can I have a lot of little, small things that I can take with me anywhere. And those little things can really add up to a big impact. And so when I was packing to come, I’m starting to travel now for work, and so I got my dresses, I’ve got my shoes, most of which I’m not wearing because it’s like you can’t wear the heels out here. And so I said, what am I doing though, what am I taking for up here? What am I taking for my mental health as I’m about to go on this adventure? What am I packing for what’s in here, for my spiritual health, for my emotional health. And it’s the smallest things. It’s taking my music, it’s taking my deep breathing, which is really helpful in the airport.
You’re going to have to share your playlist with me.
And then you know what it is, it’s doing things outside of the box. So what I love about your example is that it doesn’t have to be what everybody thinks it is. It doesn’t have to be formal therapy. It doesn’t have to be seeing someone like me, a psychiatrist. It’s not just about medications and treatment. Everyone deserves good mental health and mental and emotional wellbeing. And now after COVID I think, we’re seeing that the way we can do that doesn’t fit in boxes. It doesn’t have to be where I check the box of therapy. It can be that I’ve learned how to move my body in a new way. It can be combining the little things that I do but doing it intentionally. So this is what I love about the moment that we’re in right now. The more we’re talking about mental and emotional health, the more we’re thinking creatively and designing it in a way that really works for us.
There’s no one size fits all.
No. And speaking of being in the moment, the way that you pack, we probably all could use some tips. I’m going to rewind just a little bit. I’m going to go off script and be in the moment because that was pretty good. Repeat how you think about packing again because I literally throw everything in a suitcase. I know it’s a little bit off topic but sometimes packing can be anxiety provoking so go through that one more time.
When I pack I think about all the different types of weather, which is, in New Orleans it’s every type of weather. But I also think about what am I going to do though to stay grounded? What am I going to do to keep me still and at peace when I’m going out into the whirlwind that we know we’re going to keep facing. The world is going to keep changing. The stressors are going to keep coming. But if I can literally pull out my deep breathing and be intentional and say, I remember I packed my deep breathing. And I know this sounds really cheesy but I believe it because this is what is getting me through my moments and my days.
We have a great example. I’m going to flip the script just a little bit too. We have a great example of trying to get yourself to a place of calm when you’re stressed out. And it’s not off topic, Cleo, because traveling and packing is extremely stressful. It taxes the mental health system. And so yeah, breathing is good, taking a pause, stopping when you’re in a moment when you’re tied up in knots, and just giving yourself a moment just to think, really does go a long way towards bringing you back to that calm and that peace. And we have an example of that. I’m VP over at Sanvello and you can see me in the app. It's called Checking In with Roxanne Battle. I go on camera and I tell people how to breathe. I tell people how to break up with your phone. I tell these stories of if you’re stressed out at the airport
[Text On Screen – Roxanne Battle]
or whatever it is that you’re doing, here’s some steps you can take. We also have influencers on the app that will walk you through breathing and mediation and help you fall asleep at night. And we have an example that we brought with us today and I’m hoping our friends over on the soundboard are able to unlock my phone and be able to play it. Just close your eyes and listen to this one minute meditation by one of our influencers, gold medalist, Aly Raisman, and then we’ll come back on the other side of that and wrap things up.
(ALY RAISMAN) Pay attention to any sensation, to any difference in how your body feels after saying or doing things that you like about yourself. I invite you to try to talk to yourself the way that you would talk to a loved one or a friend. And the next time you’re stressed or nervous about something, which is totally normal, I want you to try to remember to be kind to yourself and talk to yourself the way that you would talk to somebody else. You are deserving of your own kindness and your own love. And I want to remind you again to cut yourself some slack and give yourself a break. You’re not here to be perfect. Give yourself permission to relax and do something kind for yourself today.
That’s just a small little sample of what you can find on the Sanvello app. We also have that exact same meditation that’s extended. It’s a four minute meditation inside the UHGC booth on the convention floor. So if you want to pop back over there and step into one of our meditation modules, you can actually hear that again. Cleo and Yusra, I want to wrap this up. We talked a lot about self-care. We talked about you twerking, we talked about your packing, and we gave an example of self-care. Sometimes though you need to talk to somebody and there’s a hotline and there’s ways to get there. Can you talk a little bit about where to go and what to do when you think you may need just a little bit more help?
Yes. We threw out some words today, depression, anxiety. And a lot of the discussions today have talked about diagnosis. What I want to assure you is that everybody feels sad. Everybody goes through grief. Everybody gets angry. Everybody feels stress. But when it gets to the point where you feel like you cannot move forward in your life, you’re stuck, it’s impacting your personal relationships, you start to have heart palpitations and you don’t know where it’s coming from, your palms are sweaty and it constantly happens to you over and over again, that’s when I encourage you to reach out and get some help. Don’t spend time trying to self-diagnose. Yes, you can talk to yourself, you can use the apps. But if gets to a point where you feel like you are stuck and there is no way out, I’m speaking from experience. You should reach out and start to talk to somebody so you can have a place to share that story. Certain things you can do is call your insurance company. So if you look on the back of your insurance card, you can easily call a member line and say I’m looking for a mental health professional. I need behavioral health services. And they’ll connect you with somebody. If you want to make sure that you are connecting to someone that looks like you or understands your particular problem, psychologytoday.com is one where you can actually see the profile pictures of the therapists and you can see if it’s somebody that you think will be a good fit for you. Oftentimes you may try a therapist and figure out, that’s not the one for me, and it is okay. Try a different one until you find somebody that you can talk to. There’s a couple of other ways that you can get connected to someone if you don’t have insurance. Most recently the federal government announced for the first ever in the US, we are going to have a crisis line that is 988. That is effective July 16th. If you dial 988 you will get connected to a mental health clinician if you are in a crisis and you don’t need any insurance for that.
Call, text, 24/7. And I would actually even encourage you all to go a little bit earlier. There does not have to be a crisis. There does not have to be a condition or a diagnosis. You know yourself. If you just don’t feel like yourself, listen to your gut. Oftentimes we push that voice away and we say we’re going to push through; it’ll go away. Again, thinking outside the box about mental health, there doesn’t have to be a mental health problem to be able to reach out and say I just want to feel better today. Reaching out to all those resources, doing it for yourself, and also doing it for your loved ones, your children. Our children are facing a national mental health crisis right now. It’s a hard time to be a parent, a caregiver, or a child. So 24/7 988, the National Suicide Prevention lifeline, the resources that Cleo said. Listen to your gut. It’s never too early to reach out and I would encourage you all to do it on your terms. If what we just practiced didn’t jive with you, that’s okay. Keep trying things out and if it doesn’t fit, you can move on and try something else or I even ask my friends what’s on their list and I give the things that they’re doing a try as well. So just keep trying different things until you find what works for you in the way that you think is going to help you.
Cleo, last word when we’re talking about Black joy?
Yes, so that is Black joy working, doing what works for you, brings you joy. Think about what brings me joy? What did I do when I was younger, what can I do now that brings me joy, and you focus on doing that and don’t worry about nobody judging you. So go and be fabulous, everybody. Thank you for this opportunity.
Text On Screen – Essence Wellness House Powered by Optum]
The E-Suite (powered by UnitedHealth Group, UnitedHealthcare and Optum) featured a discussion between Phil McKoy, Chief Information Officer for Optum, and Monique McWilliams, Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for UnitedHealth Group, on how Black women can advance their careers in Corporate America.
[Text On Screen –Essence E SuiteTM]
[Text On Screen – Essence E Suite, #ESSENCEFEST, Essence Festival of Culture, New Orleans, Louisiana, Presented by Coca-Cola]
Well, hello, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us in this E suite conversation,
[Text On Screen – Monique McWilliams, United Health Care]
“Can We Talk? The moments That Matter.”
Well, I'm really excited to be here. Thanks for being here. We are going to jump in
[Text On Screen – Phil McKoy, United Health Care]
and when we are done, we've got a mic there in the middle, called the Keep It Real mic, for any and all of your questions. Why don't we jump in? You ready?
All right. So I'm sitting next to an incredibly talented woman who has had an amazing career as an attorney across a number of big Fortune 500 companies. And one of the things I would love to hear from you, Monique, is how you've achieved the successes that you have, how you continue to slay in your lane. What insight can you give from your wonderful experience?
Okay. Wow. You told them a lot about me. Do you want us to start out giving them a quick introduction to ourselves? Okay, Phil and I are going to do that. That gives me time to think about that hard question he just gave me. Phil and I last month had the opportunity to attend our company's first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Innovation Lab. It was an amazing experience where we had the opportunity to really dig deep and understand the lived experiences of our employees and how we're going to address them, if there were tensions and challenges. As a part of that, there was an exercise where we had to do an elevator speech in 60 seconds. OK, now you all know that's hard. We are going to attempt to do that. I'm going to start us off.
I'm glad you're going first.
We'll see how well I do. Okay. I am Monique and I am a transformational, strategic, and innovative executive leader in DE&I. I'm very passionate about advancing diversity, equity, inclusion to elevate diverse talent within the workforce who drive towards corporate success for any company. I am the mother of two amazing children who I think are extremely smart and talented, and I just celebrated my 23rd wedding anniversary with the love of my life. His name is Terrence. I also have the privilege of taking care of, or being the primary caretaker, for both of my parents. And my primary job is to make sure that they are happy, that they're healthy, and that they're comfortable as they enter the twilight of their careers. And finally, I believe in self-care because without self-care, exercise, weightlifting, trying to eat well, half the time I can't do all of that. Phil.
That was impressive. Hard act to follow. That was good. All right, 60 seconds. I'm going to start in the reverse. I am a Jamaican born son of a country pastor, son of an English teacher. Moved to the US when I was 12 years old. Went to high school in Atlanta, college in Virginia, graduate school at the University of Denver. My career has spanned consulting at Accenture to retail at Target. I am now the CIO of the Optum division at United Health Care. My team runs the technology for our health services and technology business. I am passionate about health and health equity and the role that technology plays in creating greater equity and health in the country. I am married to my lovely wife, Amy, of 24 years. And I have five children, my oldest boy, Maxwell, and I am blessed with four spitfires of daughters. And so this Essence Fest is kind of cool because there's a whole bunch of Black girl magic running around here and with the girls that I have, that's an exciting place to be.
Okay, so back to your question. I think about two really important moments that helped me to overcome challenges and slay throughout my career. One is live in your strength. What do I mean by that? We're all going to have a variety of responsibilities and different roles throughout our career, but one of the main things we want to do is work primarily on our strengths because that's what's going to help us to be successful in any role. I'm not saying to ignore whatever our development areas are or our weaknesses, but I'm saying don't spend the most of your time there. And for anybody who is a people leader, especially at an executive level, you can hire people who are really good at whatever your weakness is. And then when you hire those people and you bring them in, trust them. Make sure they believe in the vision, and then trust that they're going to get the work done so that everybody is successful. The second thought I have in terms of what I've done in my career is I recognized very early on that no woman is an island. So you've heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it kind of takes a village to advance and raise a career. And this is very similar. In my career I have learned that I have to involve others. So I very quickly like to identify who are those leaders that I feel I can go and talk to and I can have really real moments, be my authentic self and a real conversation and be vulnerable enough to tell them what's really going on in my life at that moment or what I need help with. I like to identify people that are in a role that I want to have at some point. It might be two or three levels above where I might be at that point, but I want to go meet those people because I want to talk to somebody like you, Phil, if I was myself seven years ago to say, how did you get to be Chief Information Officer? What were some of the experiences that you've had? What were the skills and capabilities that you learned and what do you think is critical for your continued success in that role? So I can think about with respect to the experiences I'm going to have, how I'm going to acquire that. Now, in the spirit of diversity, equity, and inclusion, that doesn't mean that I have to have every role that Phil has had. I don't. Because that's how we get to a point in which everyone who has made it to that point has all looked the same. You don't need to look like everyone else who's had the role, but you do need those skills, capabilities, and that EQ that is necessary for one to be successful. When you do that, you are putting yourself out there to go meet others. That is very hard for us to do. People always say, develop your network. It's hard.
It is hard.
But you have to force yourself to do it because what we were taught, which is that just do great work, just doing great work is not enough if you want your career to advance. It is, however, the price of admission that we can't even have this conversation about these things if you're not doing great work. You probably need to start there and correct that, and then we get to this conversation. But to the point about sort of developing that network and meeting people, people at high levels of the company. Most people don't do it until they have run into a crisis or a challenge. And that's what we want to avoid, or at least we want to come out successful against that challenge. So, by way of a quick story. When I first started leading diversity, equity, and inclusion some years ago in a very formal role, I had the opportunity to be a chief diversity officer and support one of the executive leaders that reported to the CEO. He was a Black man. He was the CFO. He was smart. He was very approachable. He was very down to Earth. He was warm and inviting. He loved people. He was from the South. So he invited everybody who was new to the company he’s like, hey, how are you doing? You need to come up and talk to me. Come to my office. Make an appointment. Let's sit down and talk. He would invite people out to lunch. Raise your hand if you think that employees took him up on that?
Because people don't come up and make time with you like that, do they?
And that was really disappointing to him because he knew that each one of us would have some challenge in our career where we really do need that village to help us. And he would find out about a person as they were getting walked out the door, as they were leaving for a new opportunity, as they were calling him to say, hey, I just want to let you know my last day is on Friday. And he would say, you know what? I remember meeting that person. I said, hey, let's get together. And they never did. So we want to avoid that. Why? Because when someone like that says, hey, I want to connect with you, I can tell you right now that's a person who will pick up the phone because he's an influencer,
[Text On Screen – Monique McWilliams, United Health Care]
he has lots of power, and he will use it in the moment. So I've seen him send emails as an advocate for someone, questioning why someone was being let go as a part of a reorganization or restructure. I have seen him volunteer to make space for people in his own organization. So it's really important for us to capitalize on those relationships. And if somebody at that level invites you to get to know them, please take them up on that.
Agreed. I'm going to pull a thread that you said. The work that you do, the work that we all do together, is really focused on how do we increase diversity and inclusion in our companies writ large. But there's also the work that we've got to do to increase that representation at senior levels as well. And you mentioned this idea of the moments that matter. And I'd love to hear you talk a bit around how do you educate the organization on those moments that matter and what advice do you have to people here on what are they and how do you take advantage of them to advance your career?
[Text On Screen – Phil McKoy, United Health Care]
The Moments That Matter are five key concepts, Phil, that we identified out of our Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office to focus on with executive leaders to help them understand how and when they need to lean in to ensure the success of their diverse talent, to be clear. It applies to everyone, but because we have the greatest need with our diverse talent, that's who we were talking about. The five are the recruiting process, which is, are we bringing in diverse talent? Are we bringing in African Americans, Hispanic Latino, Asians, veterans, people with disabilities, people who self-identify as LGBQ plus. Are we bringing all those people into the company? And those who are part of the selection process and the interviewing process and the decision making process, are those people diverse and are they diversity advocates as well? Because those people are critical to make sure that we are appreciating the varied experiences that those candidates bring to the table. Second is talent development. We get them in, we got to be able to do something with the people. We have to develop them so they can be competitive for those next level positions. Third, talent management discussions. What are they saying about you that will either get you to the next level or keep you at level? Fourth, retention. We must retain our top talent. We don't want to have a regrettable loss. And then finally, being an inclusive leader. So we talked to leaders about all of those, and I'm going to just index on two that I think are really critical. The first is talent development. Do you know what people are saying about you in rooms when they're having conversations? How have they identified you? Actually, I'm sorry, this is a talent discussion. So are you a high potential employee? Are you an emerging leader? Have they decided that you are at level? Because even if they've decided that you are at level, you still want to have some vertical movement. You still want to be further developed. If you don't know that, those are questions you should ask. Do you know when the talent discussions occur? Most companies have a formal process and those conversations happen either once or twice a year, sometimes more. Most of the time, men know when the meetings are. As you were coming up in your career, Phil, did you know when those meetings were?
I might have.
You might have? Okay, I can tell you that we as women, we typically don't know when the talent discussions are happening, but you have to ask your leadership. Then once you find out when those talent discussions are happening, you have a really important job to do. Number one, you've got to find out who is invited to participate in that conversation about you. Number two, can you influence the people who are going to be attending that meeting? Maybe yes, maybe no. Even if you can't, you want to know who they are. Why? Because there might be somebody who's in that meeting that you have worked with or for at some point in the past, and they gave you some feedback. And listen, feedback is a gift. But if they give you feedback, you have to think about, okay, wait, did I close the loop with that leader? Because if you didn't close the loop, you need to go close the loop with that person before that talent discussion happens. You need to go back and say, hey, I remember we had this conversation. I appreciate you giving me that feedback. I want to tell you what I did to work on that concern. You want to get alignment from that leader that, yes, you have closed that loop you've worked on it because when they go into that meeting, you want them to be an advocate. You don't want them to be still talking about the concern that they had last year, six months ago, three years, whenever that was. So you got a lot of work to do before you get to the talent discussion, and you want to be able to influence it in a positive way if you can. And then once the conversation occurs, you want to make sure that someone debriefs you. You have to find out, what's the company policy on that? Do they openly do that or do you have to ask for it? But you need to make sure that you're proactive with respect to asking, what was the feedback, so you know what you might have to work on. Talent development, the one thing I'll say is, what do you want to do, what do you want to be when you grow up? I know you're like, I'm grown. I'm in my career. I know what I want to be. I mean, when you get to the end of your career, like those last one or two roles that you take. To get there, you have to be on somebody's succession plan. So back when I was talking about relationships, how do you get on a succession plan? Well, first you need to meet people who are in those roles. Develop a relationship with them, create a career path that mirrors it in some way. Remember, not exactly. You don't have to do everything they did, but you need to be on somebody's succession plan if you want to make it certain places. And you need to make sure that you have a sponsor that's going to help you get there.
Agreed. Yes, that's great insight. I agree.
I want to turn this around to Phil because I feel like I have been talking a lot and I do like to talk, but we really need to make sure that we hear from Phil. One of the things is this is, this is about Black women empowerment, women empowerment generally, but Black women empowerment specifically. And in the corporate environment, Phil, Black executive male leaders are critical to Black women from an advocacy standpoint, from a sponsorship standpoint. I wonder if you can give some advocate, some comments, I'm sorry, about what your advocacy has looked like in terms of advancing career of Black women.
I'll speak to it quickly and then maybe we'll take a little bit of time for questions. I'm going to pull the thread that you said around sort of that moment number three that matters. And it's the talent discussion and how important it is to be in the room and how important it is when you're in the room, and I'm lucky and blessed to be in the room and to have that opportunity, but I think when you're in the room, you have to use your voice. And for me, that's the moment of advocacy that I bring. And it's not just in the talent management discussions; it's in business discussions. And it's oftentimes something so simple as a well-placed question that says, I understand the feedback that you had about Johnny and I understand the feedback that you have about Jennifer. And some of the same strengths that you ascribe to Johnny, you ascribe as opportunities for Jennifer. Can you please help me understand that difference in point of view? And I think you guys all know what I'm getting at in that statement, but I take it on myself and it's also just my personal style, to ask a question in a very calm and reserved manner that prompts, at times, uncomfortable conversation.
[Text On Screen – Phil McKoy, United Health Care]
But in those moments, if I'm in the room and I don't ask that question, no one will. And for me, that is how I view this notion of advocacy as a senior brother who gets to be in the room for some of those conversations. So that's one moment, very specific, that I do on a regular basis in one of those moments that matter. And then the second one I would say, is to always ask and advocate for the people that aren't in the room. Oh, we’re doing meeting and this person is the expert on the topic but they're not here. This African American, this sister is the expert on the topic but she isn't in the room. Oh, well, maybe you have to invite so and so to the meeting because I believe she is actually the expert on the topic. And I think if as an executive I don't use my place and my voice, I come up short. And I think I sit in this chair because there were people that sat in the room who did the same for me and I feel a profound sense of responsibility to do that for the people that will follow and sit in the chairs after me. So for me it's the power of voice and it's the power of voice in the rooms where not enough brothers and sisters and other brown people sit. That's how I use it.
Thanks for that, Phil. We will open it up for questions now. That is a Keep it Real mic, so please make your way to the microphone. Keep it Real means don't worry about trying to use the exact words that make everybody feel comfortable. Let's get right to it.
And if you know either of us, you're probably going to get that honest answer.
Hi, I'm Jenae Adams. I'm the owner of Debt Sucks University and I spent ten years in pharmaceutical sales, so very familiar with United Health Group, and my own business now for 11 years where I do financial wellness with companies. So thinking about diversity and inclusion, looking at it, we always talk about color and race and everything, but looking at it from a standpoint of finances. Because if you come in there, everybody doesn't come from the same background. And if you're talking about them going to higher levels but they don't have the finances to be able to be in those rooms because they might need to take a second job and so forth, what are you all doing as a company to kind of even out those fields around financial wellness and finances, not just who's being hired and so forth?
Well, I'm happy to start out, Phil. Okay. That reminds us we have many different areas within our organization of United Health Group, which United Health Care is one part of the business, Optum that Phil works in, as another. And as a part of that,
[Text On Screen – Monique McWilliams, United Health Care]
we have certain positions where people work hours that are really not conducive to them learning, participating in diversity, equity, and inclusion events. So we've had to think about how do we take those same messages, learning, talent discussions and break those down into bite sized chunks that they can participate in, learn in the amount of time that they have. Honestly, we are still working on that. We are looking at our benefits. We're looking at the way we deliver learning. We are looking at all of that to make sure that we are able to reach all of our employees. Because we have recognized that those who sit in corporate positions, easy to get this. One of our main goals out of the Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office is to make sure that we're getting to everyone. And I can say we may not have always focused on that as a corporation before, but we are definitely focused on that now because we want to lift all boats, everybody, in all positions. So thank you for asking that question. It's really an area of focus for us.
All right, we are getting the hook. So thank you, Essence Festival. Thank you for being here. Thank you for your attention. It's an honor for me to be able to participate in this forum and, frankly, just to show up and be a part of it. So really appreciate you all’s attention and focus and participation in this conversation.
And we want to thank you all and invite you to come and see us over at the convention center. Come and see our booth and get to experience what it's like to be an employee of United Healthcare United Health Group. We would love to have you. Especially at 2:00, we have something really special that's going on at that time. Okay, thank you all for coming. Let’s give yourselves a big hand.
[Text On Screen – Essence E Suite, Sponsors Include Ford, Google, MasterCard, UnitedHealthcare]
The Health Hub (powered by Optum) drew awareness to the rising maternal mortality rates, with a conversation between Dr. Bilikis Oladimeji, Senior Director of Clinical Informativs & Innovation for Optum, and Dr. Natalie Hernandez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health & Preventive Medicine and Executive Director of the Center for Maternal Health Equity at Morehouse School of Medicine.
[Text in middle of screen – Essence Health Hub™ Powered by Optum]
[Camera pans out to show 3 women sitting around a coffee table ready to engage in conversation. There is text in the lower right corner with Essence E Suite, #ESSENCEFEST, Essence Festival of Culture, New Orleans, Louisiana, Presented by Coca-Cola]
ROXANNE BATTLE: Hello, everyone, and thank you for being here at the Health Hub here at Essence Fest. I hope you’re a great time. Great to see you coming in. And don't be afraid to move a little closer if you want to. My name is Roxanne Battle. I am Vice President of Advocacy and Community at Sanvello Health, which is a partner of Optum and UHG and UHG. And I hope you've had an opportunity to stop by our booth, just our bilevel booth. It’s pop in. It's really lit over there. So after today's panel, I hope you have an opportunity to stop by and get a free swag bag and that kind of thing. Today we're talking about maternal health, Black maternal health. And as a Black woman who has given birth, I know what the stats say and I know what the experience is with respect to how women of color are treated during one of the most important times of their life. And with me today, are two Optum physicians who are going to talk about how you can be an advocate for yourself, how you can have a voice, and make sure that you and your little one enter the world and stay in the world safely. With me right now to my left is Dr. Bilikis Oladimeji and Dr. Natalie Hernandez. Bilikis, I'll go ahead and let you introduce yourself.
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: Absolutely. Thank you, Roxanne. That was a beautiful introduction. It's such a pleasure to be with you all today. Thank you for being in the audience to listen to this wonderful session. I am Bilikis Oladimeji and I am a physician. I was trained in Nigeria. And then I've since moved into the field of informatics, working to help improve healthcare, generally through the use of information technology, informatics, and several other pieces. I've worked in several places, including GSK and at Duke Health before finally being in Optum. So currently, I am the Senior Director for Clinical Informatics and Innovation at Optum Health Center of Advanced Clinical Solutions. As part of my role, though, outside of my day job, I try to continue to do a lot of work within maternal health, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion. And one of the reasons why maternal health is so important to me is first of all, I'm a mother myself and so this matter touches me personally. But also just thinking about my experience practicing medicine in Nigeria and watching childbirth and coaching women, being with them within the clinic and see them go through all of the challenges and also studying the milieu of healthcare and maternal health within Nigeria, that has been an opportunity for me to see what are the things that we can do to improve health care. And it just makes it very much more important as I got into this environment, as I got into the United States, to learn more about maternal health here in the United States. And the challenge for me sometimes when I look at it is that among the OECD countries, the United States has very poor maternal health metrics compared to the other countries. So it's very important for me as a person to insert myself as part of the solution to some of the problems that's being seen. Again, that's just one of the things. As part of the work that I do at Optum, I am part of the working group and the task force that's looking at maternal healthcare. As part of that is the executive sponsorship position that I have in working very closely with Natalie here.
ROXANNE BATTLE: If you want to go ahead. Thank you, Dr. Bilikis. And Natalie, go ahead and introduce yourself.
DR. NATALIE HERNANDEZ: Yes. Hi, everyone. I'm Dr. Natalie Hernandez. I'm an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine. And I'm also the executive director and founder of our Center for Maternal Health Equity at Morehouse School of Medicine. I live and breathe this work every day. I am a mother, a daughter, and I have a daughter. And this is something that's just near and dear to my heart. I’ve developed multiple lines of research and been doing this research for over 16 years, using community engaged approaches to engage with diverse populations and really focusing on women's health inequities across the lifespan. Again, personal experiences. And my sister was also a maternal near miss and so I'm really excited to engage in this conversation.
ROXANNE BATTLE: Let's start right with you. Thank you, Dr. Natalie. Let's talk about – we were listening on the main stage yesterday when Dr. Mary-Margaret Wilson was being interviewed by Caroline Wanga. And we were talking about mortality rates. A Black woman, a woman of color, Latina woman, has 3% chance, three times higher morbidity in maternity rates than non women of color, which is an abomination, to your point, Dr. Bilikis. What are we doing? What can women do to help avoid some of the difficulties that arise at certain points in their pregnancy?
DR. NATALIE HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. Thank you for that question. And so we know that there are a lot of underlying chronic conditions that contribute to maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity. These include obesity, heart disease, there are also what we call where we work, live, play and pray that contribute to the experiences that Black women have when it comes to maternal deaths. But that doesn't explain the whole picture, because obese women of all races and ethnicities still have better health outcomes than Black women who are of normal weight.
ROXANNE BATTTLE: So what you're saying is environmental and socioeconomic has no impact?
DR. NATALIE HERNANDEZ: No. No. Even Black women in the wealthiest neighborhoods still have worse outcomes than women of all races in the poorest ones. So we know that there's something called systemic racism that's contributing to a lot of these inequities that Black women are currently facing in our country. And so what we want women to do is be prepared to have the tools to really advance their pregnancies and just their bodies in general, because it starts before you get pregnant. So we encourage all of you to get your preconception health check. Figure out how to manage your healthy eating habits. We had Doctor Robin here previously who gave us really great tips on what to do, how to eat healthy. And if it's not accessible to you, there are ways to think about healthy eating without spending a lot of money. We also want you to know what your normal is, because all of our normals are different. Trust your instincts. Trust what your body is telling you because no one else is going to make that decision for us because apparently they're ignoring all of us when we go see our healthcare providers. And then write down your questions. When you're preparing for your clinical visits, write down your questions. Take notes. Don't let the conversation derail you. Because sometimes our providers can make us feel a little bit intimidated, right? Because they have all the knowledge. But you have the knowledge of your own body so trust your own instincts and find a doc who meets your needs and preferences. Miss Wanga yesterday was talking about we're audacious and we're picky when we want people to do our hair, to do our nails, and to do all of it. We have to be just as picky as we're trying to figure out who we want as our provider to take care of our health. And then being able to advocate for yourself, knowing that your care relies heavily on how you express yourself to your provider. And it should be a two way street. So those are just some tips.
ROXANNE BATTLE: Thank you for passing that to Dr. Bilikis because I would love for you to follow up on this whole self-advocacy piece. What we're really saying is you have a voice and you have a license, and you don't need permission to use that voice w hen it comes to your own self-advocacy with respect to pregnancy.
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: Absolutely. Thank you so much Natalie, for putting that out there. I think the very first thing to acknowledge is the fact that historically, women, especially Black women, the way we see healthcare is that we have a personalistic relationship with our clinicians, which is that we don't feel like we have the freedom of choice or that we have that agency, that we can be part of the decision making in that process. And I think that is why it starts from the mindset to understand that you have the power, you have the choice to be able to do certain things and to be able to request for the right type of care for yourself that really fits into the circumstances that you are in. Like the point that Natalie was saying earlier around where you work, where you live, all of those circumstances really matter in the type of decisions that need to be made around your care for maternal health. And so the other part of it is that as part of the shared decision making, you should be bold and audacious in doing several, certain things to advocate for yourself. And the way that I put it is that you need to prepare. You need to prepare. Don't let your clinical visits, for instance, be a thing that is just on the side, or within your work schedule and all of a sudden it's time for me to go to my clinic and you get up and go. You should start preparing for that visit as early as possible. Write down your question, put them in prioritized form so that you can ask the most pertinent questions first. The other thing is also to observe and share. Nobody knows your body than you do. So you should be able to, you know that you have the opportunity to share what you're feeling. You can use I feel statements like I feel like this is what I'm going through. And even if you feel like you're not being listened to or your circumstances is being dismissed or the complaints you have are being dismissed, you have the opportunity to say I feel like my voice is not being heard in this conversation. I feel like you're not listening to me. Those types of things can help you get your expressions across as quickly as possible. And then the other thing is, question. Questions are very, very important in the sense of getting clarification around things that you don't understand. Don't feel like you cannot ask your clinician questions. You can do that. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what is being said. And you can also ask questions to your clinician about what their thoughts and what their thinking is about the disparities in care. That helps you to even understand your clinician better and know if they are the right clinicians for you. And you also have the opportunity to seek different opinions, to ask your questions in other areas, to ask questions to another clinician if you need to. The last one is repeat. Make sure that if you're not clear, again, ask for the person to repeat the instructions that they are giving you. Request for materials that will help you understand what was being discussed in the conversation as quickly as possible. As a clinician myself, though, I want you to understand that you can empathize with your clinicians because we all know what the workforce looks like today and the challenges that clinicians go through. But that is part of still our service to you is to ensure that we are providing the right care and the best care that is necessary for you in particular. Let your visit address the intersectionality frame that you bring into the picture. You can be a Black woman, Christian, Muslim, whatever different things that come into that intersection for you. Make sure that all of those pieces are addressed. And for labor and delivery specifically, it is a point of vulnerability. And again, it's a point where you're really vulnerable and emotions are high and there’s so many things. Which is why it is very important for you to have an advocate. And when you're seeking an advocate, make sure it's someone that knows you very well, that can help you describe what your intent is and what your plans are and what the alternatives are and be able to make decisions on your behalf or for your sake, and to go through that process. The other thing is, of course, it's not just a point in time. This is a communal effort. We have to understand the need for having community around us when we're going through this process. And that way we can ensure that we're getting the right care and the right decisions made.
ROXANNE BATTLE: Outstanding, Dr. Bilikis. You have hit on so many key points around the whole advocate for yourself. You have a voice for yourself. You don't need permission to ask questions. You should ask questions. You should prepare. We sit here knowing that when it comes to maternal health and morbidity, that racism is at the core of it. No one's going to dispute that. And both of you have done an outstanding job at equipping us to advocate for ourselves. But the larger question is, what is the system doing about it? What is Optum doing about it? What is United Healthcare doing about it? Dr. Hernandez, I know that you're with the Morehouse College of Medicine. You're a grant recipient from Optum. How are you using those dollars to improve outcomes?
DR. NATALIE HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. So we have a study called a Narrative Based Medicine Study where we're looking at women who almost died when they gave birth. Narrative based medicine is just a fancy word of saying storytelling, because we know that in our communities, storytelling is our roots and our wings. It's how we free ourselves. It's how we’ve moved a lot of past traumas. And so we interviewed 100 women across the country to share their stories. This is a way to amplify Black women's voices, to legitimate their voices, and say, you know what? What you have to say is important. And that solutions should be created not from what academic journals can say, but what your voice has to say, because Black women's voices are the most important in our study. And so this was a way to really codify women's lived experiences and use them as data points to inform clinical practice, to inform policy and advocacy, and to really inform different types of healthcare strategies.
ROXANNE BATTLE: I mean, you heard a story today in the restroom. Every woman of color has a story. And those stories are real and valid, and they really need and they have a place in research and medicine.
DR. NATALIE HERNANDEZ: Yes. So we spoke to 42 year old Black woman from Louisiana, and this was a quote from the study: “I think they had a racial prejudice towards me. I think they just felt like I was just being difficult.” And that's what we constantly hear from these stories. Themes of discrimination, of being a difficult person, of being too loud, of exaggerating their pain. And that's unacceptable. And that's what we're hoping to do through this story, through the storytelling, is dispel the myths and inform things, like policy. So we were able to get women, Black women on patient advisory groups in Georgia and other southern states where Black women weren't represented, but they were making solutions for Black women. We were able to participate with the Centers for Disease Control He or Her campaign and have our women featured in CDC's campaign. And we were also able to be able to use the stories that we've collected as testimony to pass postpartum Medicaid extension in the state of Georgia, providing care to women now up to 12 months postpartum. So from this study, we see immediate impacts and then working with the larger Optum and United Healthcare team to inform other types of healthcare strategies.
ROXANNE BATTLE: This is empathetic medicine. This is cultural sensitivity medicine. We talk about cultural competency. We're really talking about cultural sensitivity. And it's one thing to incorporate narrative based medicine in the care. But Dr. Bilikis, once we hear those stories, we're going to need the physicians and the care doc, and the doctors, and the obstetricians to facilitate that care. So what more is being done to make sure that happens?
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: Thank you so much for laying it out that way. I wanted to start from a more broader perspective. So some of you are already familiar with United Health Group in some way or shape. So there is United Health Group, there is United Health Care and Optum. United Healthcare and Optum are part of the brother umbrella of UHG. And we have several efforts within the organization through various means to be able to partner with communities to be able to reach out to the point where there is actual need to be able to transform how maternal health is being practiced within our country. So across UHG, there is a foundation called United L Foundation, which is a not for profit part of UHG that helps to service those communities that I talked about. We also have corporate social responsibilities from both UHC and Optum that also contributes to some of these efforts. So, again, it's a broad umbrella of several different efforts. But for those efforts, it's focused on access, it's focused on equity, making sure that we get patient centered or person centered care as well as whole person care. Because a lot of times pregnant women are not the only thing that's happening to them at that particular point in time. It’s not just the pregnancy. Sometimes they have some comorbidities or some diseases or some other things that they are dealing with, or some conditions that they are dealing with, which really plays into how their care needs to go. And so it begins from whatever we're trying to transform, because where we are today is not a consequence of just what happened yesterday. There's so much history that goes into it. There is the medical education bias. There are so many pieces that we need to be able to get to the root of. So for the work that Dr. Hernandez was talking about, I think it's very important for us to be able to translate what we are learning from research into action that then transform the way that women are able to experience, especially Black women, were able to experience the difference in the way that care is being delivered to us so that it actually addresses where our pinpoints and where our needs really are. So in terms of the clinical workforce, which is very, very crucial to this transformation, United Health Foundation recently committed $100 million to be spent over 10 years to train the workforce of the future. So if you think about nurses, doctors, doulas, community health workers, several different people that you might interact with in the process of getting your health care, United Health Foundation is doing that to ensure that they are getting the relevant training, which is not just a medical training, but culturally competent presence that is looking at all of the results that we're finding from the research that has been done so far. We're making sure that we're pulling that in. Another one, which I had the opportunity to actually go to speak at recently, is something around bioinformatics and trying to see how we can use data in a more effective way to be able to translate research into action. The other part of it is also supporting current grassroots and community based organizations, whether it's corporate organizations or some organizations that are in the local faith based, whatever based, all of those organizations that you and I know and we see a lot more often than we see our clinicians. So UHF is also trying and Optum and UHG are trying to do that. One arm of that that is notable is the UHG’s funding of $275,000 in 2021 in the state of Louisiana that is addressing disparities. We also have Optum’s funding of $1.4 million across five organizations in the US which Morehouse was part of this grant that we're talking about is part of it. And all of this looks at women within the milieu, the ecosystem in which we exist. So it's not just the maternal health care at the point where you're delivering, but it is looking at the research, the doulas, intimate partner violence that contributes to some of the things that we see at the end of the day. Newborn care. Again, there are several metrics that show how many children, like twice as much Black children die compared to non-Black. So you can think about all of those types of metrics. We're trying to change it from end to end, not necessarily at just one point in time. And the other thing I wanted to emphasize on is a lot of this commitment and funding we do not leave this – the grantees have the opportunity to do as they please with the money but then we support them with our own expertise within the organization. And so we have volunteers from our organization who actually partner during this research or analysis of the data or even helping to figure out how best to transform those organization in the best place that is able to get their mission. Again, it is their mission. It is what they want to do, but we enable them to be able to get to that, to the work that we do.
ROXANNE BATTLE: So to summarize, and thank you, Dr. Bilikis, United Healthcare has committed $100 million to improving the number of clinicians, doctors, nurses, obstetricians of color, so we can close the gap on some of these disparities. There's no reason here in the United States of America that Black women are three times the rate to have an incident than white women at the point of birth. So the financial dollars are being committed. And to Dr. Natalie's point, advocate for yourself. You have a voice. Ask questions. Prepare for your visits. You don't need permission to ask someone about your own physical health and certainly your mental health as well. You don't need permission to do that. That's your body, your life, this new life that you're bringing into the world. So write those questions down. If you question anything, if something doesn't feel right in your spirit, ask and ask again until you've got the answer that you're comfortable with. We've got about two minutes left. I'd love to ask our esteemed doctors to kind of leave some final thoughts that you can take with you as we leave this conference. We've been talking a lot about use your voice, Dr. Natalie. Can you kind of give us a takeaway on that?
DR. NATALIE HERNADEZ: Absolutely. So I want all of you when you think there's so much negativity out there, and Essence is about joy and bringing Black joy. And so I want you to remember the joy of giving birth, the joy of being pregnant, and that we see you, we hear you, and we are you. And that's just what I want to leave you with.
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: I guess the same goes for me as well.
ROXANNE BATTLE: It’s the same. That’s okay.
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: I am from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, and we see childbirth as a thing of celebration, a thing of joy. It is one of the most amazing things. And I know that with this conversation, it can get heavy sometimes where you start to think about all of the negative parts of it. Like why should I even want to consider birthing again? Why do I even want to go through all of these challenges? But the truth is, childbirth is a process that is part of our lives, and we can't let anyone take that away from us.
ROXANNE BATTLE: Or take the joy away from us.
DR. BILIKIS OLADIMEJI: They cannot take that away from us. They cannot take that joy away from us. We have the opportunity to be able to do this. And as a newly remarried person, I am in here with you. I am you. I am considering all of these visits as well. Because, again, it's just part of our lives and we shouldn't be held back by the fear or by the challenges that we have. And there is a point here as well that I want you to understand, which is the fact that we all, all of us, you, you, you, everyone in this room have the power to do something. You have the power to advocate not only for yourself, but also for others, for the sisters not in this room that you know that really need to hear this right now. There is an opportunity for you to be able to do something about that. And again, just know that you have the power, you have the voice, and you have the right to the best quality of care for you at every point in time.
ROXANNE BATTLE: Thank you, Dr. Bilikis Oladimeji and thank you, Dr. Natalie Hernandez, both with Optum. I’m Roxanne Battle, Vice President of Advocacy and Community at Optum. On behalf of United Healthcare and United Health Group, it's been a pleasure presenting with you today. Please stop by and see us at our UnitedHealthcare booth and visit UnitedHealth.
Connect mind and body
Your mental health has a direct link to your physical health — and both are equally important for your overall well-being. Get the support you need with these resources, including Sanvello, on-demand help for stress, anxiety and depression.
Get active and live healthy
Eligible UnitedHealthcare health plans1 now include a 1-year Peloton App Membership at no additional cost. The app offers thousands of live and on-demand fitness classes to help members get active and live healthier lifestyles.
Get healthy before baby
Being healthy is an important way to get yourself ready for parenthood. Learn how to stay healthy at all ages, so you can take good care of you — and your baby too.
Be a voice for health equity
Let's come together to imagine a world where everyone has equal access to affordable, quality health care — when and where they need it. Our collective efforts can make big changes happen.
Get the basics on health insurance and how it really works
The more you know about health insurance, the easier it is to get the most out of your benefits. Dive into the basics like common terms, how health insurance works, how to manage health insurance costs and more. It's one way to help you make choices that feel right for supporting your health and wellness.