What Ubuntu could mean for health equity

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Author: Nir Altman, Co-founder and CEO, Equiva

I recently came across a March 2022 article published at KevinMD.com by Brandon Wolfenden, a board certified physician assistant in the Syracuse, NY area. If you’re unfamiliar with KevinMD.com, it’s a site founded in 2004 by Kevin Pho, MD. Often referred to as social media’s leading physician voice, Dr. Pho created a web platform where physicians, advanced practitioners, nurses, medical students, and patients share their insight and tell their stories.

I commend Brandon Wolfenden for writing about Ubuntu Philosophy in Health Care. “Whatever the conclusion of the pandemic, the economic, social, medical, and psychological consequences will take a long time from which to recover,” he writes. “This time of transition has the potential to bring us into a more promising future.”

I couldn’t agree more.

This author goes on to describe concepts from an article titled The Path Forward: Lessons from Unbuntu Leadership.

If you’re not familiar with the word “Ubuntu,” it is sometimes translated as “humanity to others.” It is also often described as reminding us that “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Ubuntu comes from the Nguni language, a group of Bantu languages spoken in southern Africa. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and the term made an impression on me in the context of social equity, acts of kindness and other humanity-centric topics.

I’ve always had an interest in finding new ways to leverage technology to advance social equity. In the early 2000’s, I began thinking about the enormous potential of technology to improve the patient experience and advance patient engagement. This led me into a decade-plus of work to develop solutions to help healthcare organizations improve patient experience and engagement. It’s been a pleasure to work with our customers, including leading healthcare organizations (HCOs) across the US; to better understand and address their challenges.

The amount of progress our industry has made with digital health advances is quite amazing. Yet, in reading Brandon Wolfenden’s article, I am struck by his perspectives as a clinician – and the possibilities to make further advances in the context of Ubuntu.

The word Ubuntu is part of the Zulu phrase ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,’ writes Wolfenden, “which literally means that a person is a person through other people. It transcends color and racial barriers, geographical barriers, political barriers, religious barriers, gender barriers, etc. Ubuntu is a way of life.”

Consider how closely these comments align to key concepts tied to health equity and social determinants of health.

Today, we face enormous health equity challenges. In fact, according to a 2018 study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the non-profit agency Altarum, health disparities cost $42 billion in lowered productivity and $93 billion in excess medical costs each year.

Perhaps as we evaluate approaches to addressing health inequities, we consider Ubuntu as a part of our framework for taking action, using it to help us focus on common humanity and oneness.

At Equiva, we’ve been fortunate to collaborate with our customers to develop solutions that address health disparities and advance health equity. We tend to find that HCO executives are often overwhelmed or stifled by misconceptions that adopting health equity-oriented digital technology is highly complex and costly. What we believe — and what Equiva has set out to prove — is that it doesn’t have to be.

Wolfenden shares this in his article: “There is currently a demand in medicine for big-hearted leaders with a strong sense of social justice and the knowledge and ambition to effect constructive change in our fields.” 

Again. I couldn’t agree more.  Thank you, Brandon, for providing an excellent overview of concepts to considered, not only by clinicians but by everyone seeking to attempt to gain a deeper understanding of not only patients but with every person we encounter in our daily lives.

As Brandon writes: “Ubuntu is not a complete solution, rather a place to start to find a certain type of peace within ourselves in all of this chaos.”

Care to engage in some meaningful dialogue – or, better yet, brainstorming around this topic? Email me at info@equivahealth.com.

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