Joneigh Khaldun, MD, MPH, FACEP, sees the national pharmacy chain as an integral part of a new healthcare ecosystem that uses data and technology to overcome barriers to care.
Editor's note: This article appears in the October-December 2023 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.
CVS Health's first-ever chief health equity officer says the national pharmacy chain is placing itself at the front of the health equity movement because it has the name-brand recognition to help underserved communities.
"People see us as a trusted brand," says Joneigh Khaldun, MD, MPH, FACEP, who also serves as vice president of the Rhode Island–based company, which includes among its many subsidiaries CVS Pharmacy, MinuteClinic, CVS Caremark, Aetna, Osco Drug, and Oak Street Health. "Nowadays people are more likely to go to their neighborhood pharmacists than a primary care provider."
Khaldun, who joined CVS Health in late 2021 and is also an Emergency Department physician for the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, has the background to address health equity. Prior to joining CVS Health, she was Michigan's chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the state's Health and Human Services Department, where she oversaw public health, Medicaid, behavioral health, and aging services. She also spearheaded Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer's COVID-19 response strategy and was appointed in 2021 to President Joseph Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.
Khaldun says health equity is a long-standing issue, affecting underserved populations long before COVID-19 cast a spotlight on the topic. But with the glare of public perception came a new interest in addressing the issue with innovative technologies and strategies.
Health equity "has become a buzzword, but health disparities aren't new at all," she says. "What is exciting is the energy around addressing the root causes. The entire healthcare ecosystem has changed, and it has given us new opportunities" to level the playing field for consumers who have problems accessing the care they need.
Part of that change comes from the expansion of the healthcare marketplace, and the introduction of new and more diversified participants, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS Health. Traditional healthcare organizations are working hard to stay competitive, often by using consumer-friendly technology and strategies to keep their patients.
Khaldun won't talk about whether CVS Health is competing with or partnering with health systems, but she does say the CVS network can address one aspect of health inequity: Lack of trust in the healthcare industry. Underserved populations often feel disenfranchised from local health systems due to barriers in accessing care. Having them access care through CVS Health helps to break down those barriers and put more faith in healthcare providers, she says.
Khaldun has a three-pronged approach to addressing health inequity: Empowering people to take charge of their own care, using data to identify each person's unique healthcare journey, and using technology to take action. Consumers often encounter care gaps, she says, when they don't have the data they need to make the right healthcare decisions.
"To understand the disparities and inequities, you have to have the right information," she says. "That’s what we can do."
Khaldun also says virtual care "is going to be an important part of our healthcare ecosystem," enabling CVS Health to link consumers to the care providers they need to see no matter where they're based. That will go a long way toward breaching the barriers to care caused by lack of access, she says, and open the door for new opportunities in care management.
Not lost in the equation is the impact that pharmacies can have on care delivery. Advocates say pharmacists can and should play a more active role in care management because they often have access to the data needed to link consumers to effective treatments and are often the best resource to address an ineffective treatment or identify new care plans.
"That's why CVS Health is certainly a healthcare innovation company," she says. "Pharmacists have an incredibly important role to play in this."
“Nowadays people are more likely to go to their neighborhood pharmacists than a primary care provider.”
— Joneigh Khaldun, MD, MPH, FACEP, vice president and chief health equity officer, CVS Health
Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.
Joneigh Khaldun was named vice president and chief health equity officer of CVS Health in 2021.
She says the organization sits in a perfect place to address health inequity, as consumers often find it easier to visit a pharmacy than a primary care provider.
CVS Health plans to use data and new technologies, such as virtual care, to identify care gaps, personalize the healthcare journey and help consumers access the care they need no matter where they're located.