InclusivCare has been helping underserved minority communities for 17 years. To celebrate Martin Luther King’s Day, they held a massive COVID vaccine drive. I spoke with CEO, Dr. Shondra Williams, and COO, Dr. Dwana Green about their organization, their accomplishments, and what those accomplishments mean as women of color. InclusivCare services the Marrero, Kenner, Avondale, and Lafitte communities, and provides transportation for its services.  This interview has been abridged for readability and length.

MR (Michael Raso): Dr. Williams, tell me about yourself and InclusivCare?

CEO, Dr. Shondra Williams

Williams: I’ve been CEO of InclusivCare for nearly nine years. I consider myself very lucky to be able to service patients, especially those in need who may not be able to advocate for themselves. That’s what gets me up in the morning, and makes the impossible, possible. We are a network of community health centers based primarily in Jefferson Parish on East and West sides of the river. We are building a new state of the art facility that’s coming in June or summer 2021. It’s going to be in the heart of the community, helping minority populations who are primarily our patient base.

MR: Dr. Green, tell me about yourself and your involvement in InclusivCare?

Green: I am Chief Operating Officer at InclusivCare. I have been with the agency for a whopping 93 days, and I have been enjoying this ride and this opportunity in the community. I am driven particularly by my passion to remove historic health and resource inequities that the community has been fighting, using my knowledge, my experience, and my professional training. I’m an epidemiologist at Tulane. With the agency, I’m in charge of ensuring that all elements of excellence in care are provided for our patients, to improve access and to help education opportunities for the historically underserved.

MR: Dr. Williams, what makes your services different to the community?

WILLIAMS: What makes us different, quite honestly, is we are a one-stop shop.

That means that patients can come to us for almost every need they possibly have, from primary care, to dental, to mental health, to in-house pharmacy medications, to women’s health, which is very important, and something that I’m passionate about, as well as a host of other specialty services.

In terms of what do we do to set the bar high for ourselves, we hire people of excellence. People who have a shared vision of being patient-centered. In our organization, you can really connect with the patients in an environment that’s supportive to both the patient as well as to the employees. I’m really the most proud of the team that I work with who roll their sleeves up no matter what: rain, sleet, snow, we’re out meeting the needs of the community. Even sometimes when it hurts.

We like to consider ourselves as the difference maker for our patients. We are helping them to navigate the complexities of a healthcare system that is somewhat broken, if you will.

That’s helping to bridge transportation gaps, free of charge; right now that is facing the COVID crisis, making sure that there’s access to COVID-19 testing, making sure there’s COVID-19 vaccinations, in the heart of communities that may be traditionally hard to reach.

MR: Dr. Green, what has been the community’s response to that?

Green: The community response has been very positive, which we are very grateful for.

They see myself and Dr. Williams on the forefront of this cause to provide resources and minimize health inequities, and they get that.

Particularly with the COVID vaccine, there have been conversations. I receive a lot of questions regarding distrust. However, they’re allowed with myself and Dr. Williams to have that conversation and to ask the question and we provide the information and the science and the evidence behind why certain services are important for the overall health of the community and the public health as a whole.

MR: Why do you think there is distrust in the communities that you serve?

Green: Well, being a graduate of Tuskegee University, I think I can speak to the fact that there’s been several studies beyond the syphilis study, that really drilled down on the concept of there were certain subsets of the African-American community who had been exposed, who were mistreated, and malpractice occurred that was either not addressed or swept under the rug.

The distrust infected the community as with any community who have been wronged. They express this, they hold onto these experiences. And from those experiences, they tend to develop and hone their own sense of how they’re going to view the world and how they’re going to view healthcare. Recently, when they see people who look like them, who are speaking and being sentinels for how we’re trying to reform healthcare, they are able to see that there’s a change. There’s a transformation.

It’s not that we’re saying that certain things that contributed to mistrust did not happen. We’re saying let’s transform that. And we can be a part of that transformation as African-American people to re-educate our people, to improve trust, and to mitigate the legitimate concerns that are out there.

Williams: Just to compress that, it’s safety and efficacy. Is it safe for me, my family, and my children? Is it truly going to be effective against COVID-19? Those are some questions that we’ve been asked.

MR: And how do you respond?

Williams: We are always glad to respond to those questions, based on the science that Dr. Green just underscored. I think this is the simplest answer. COVID-19, there are lots of uncertainties whether you will live or whether you will die. No one knows. It’s been very complex to say the least.

So the COVID-19 vaccine is the solution to addressing such uncertainty. We believe it’s a hope for life.

Green: I find that the community appreciates when I provide the statistics. It’s about the known of potential risks versus the known and potential benefits of the vaccine. In terms of my decision to be vaccinated, the known potential benefit of the vaccine is 95% likelihood with the Moderna and Pfizer of approximately being immune to the virus.

And there’s a less than 1% chance of having an adverse reaction. To me, the decision is a no-brainer. I like to give them the statistics so that they can research and make that decision for themselves.

MR: What can you tell me about the mass vaccination drive on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Green: It was very successful. We vaccinated approximately 700 people. We were able to answer questions, and again, mitigate concerns about any side effects, or what have you.

It was an opportunity to be there for people in the community who typically would not necessarily have access to receiving a vaccine in a timely manner.  It was a great opportunity to spread the word that the vaccine is safe. Vaccinating such a large number of people is providing an opportunity for others to see, well, they’re vaccinated. They’re doing well.We should consider it. And that’s what has been happening based upon the feedback we’ve been receiving.

MR: Dr. Green, according to Forbes, Black Americans comprise 13% of the US population, but make up only 4% of the 877,000 active physician workforce. Black females represent only 2% of physicians. How do you feel about that? What can be done to improve those numbers?

Green: Of course, I feel that’s unfortunate that the number is so low. What can be done to improve that: the continual efforts to improve STEM programs in schools, to encourage black females to pursue science, technology and math careers—there’s a lot of need there—expand access engineering, as well, at all institutions; be inviting and open to having summer programs; have programs for high-performing students in the inner cities and areas that have people that would typically not attend universities; programs in schools in rural areas.

MR: Dr. Williams, a similar question. Of the Fortune 500 companies, there is one CEO that’s a woman of color. How do you feel about that and what can be done to improve those numbers?

Williams: The world is changing, of course. In order to really address the complexities that exist today and, quite frankly, have always existed, it is imperative that the world starts to represent the populations that exist. As it relates to leadership, I’ve been really passionate about helping to bring other leaders in, specifically women of color who are leaders, to the table so that they can compete; so that they can earn the credibility, if you will, in the business world.

So yes, I believe that it would be nice to see more African-American women around the table. In terms of what can we do? What should we do? I believe in lifting as I climb. And that’s essentially the manifestation of my role here as the CEO of InclusivCare

MR: Dr. Green, as a woman of color, how do you see your circumstances and accomplishments as unique?

Green: I would say our circumstances are unique in that our experiences and accomplishments inform decisions about services and needs of the community. We have a keen understanding of what it means to be disenfranchised and to be denied certain services, historically. Based on these experiences and knowledge, we are able to be a voice for those who typically were voiceless.

MR: Dr. Green, we were talking earlier about informing people who are concerned about vaccines. Have you had a lot of trouble getting people vaccinated?

Green: Well, I don’t know if it’s having a lot of trouble; it’s just dispelling some of the myths. It’s unfortunate that some myths are out there and they just spin and spiral. We have to purposefully be that beacon of knowledge for the community. It’s not necessarily trouble, it’s just an obligation to right some misinformation. We do find ourselves doing that a lot–reminding them to use cited sources, to be careful with blogs and gossip, to discern if it’s coming from evidence-based sources. The community, social media, and the internet can be very difficult to navigate. We see that every day in pretty much every conversation we have with someone reticent about receiving the vaccines. So, if you want to call it trouble– we just say it’s an opportunity to dispel those myths. Once you dispel them, I find that we’ve gained buy-in, but, of course, we also have times when there are people who are still not there.

So we meet people where they are. We give them the information and allow them time to process what we’re telling them and go from there.

MR:  Dr. Williams, as CEO, can you tell me about some of the logistics as far as getting your work out to the multiple locations you have?

Williams: We use a centralized approach, essentially. But one thing we’ve learned, quite honestly, is that every site is different and every community is different. So we think it’s important to tailor our service provision and even how we operate, to some extent, to the needs of that particular community.

But I think our cultural values of teamwork, excellence, professionalism and diversity are very, very important. Hence the name InclusivCare.

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