Dr. Cozzette Lyons-Jones is the Chief Physician at Watts Healthcare Corporation in Los Angeles and witness to how Covid-19 is impacting her largely African American patient population. In her interview with Maria Shriver, Dr. Lyons-Jones says Covid-19 has accelerated and revealed disparities in health condition among communities of color that existed long before the pandemic. But she’s undaunted – and views this moment as one of opportunity to address the issues of race and healthcare head on.

WAM: What have you learned as you treat patients during the crisis?

DR. COZZETTE LYONS-JONES: Believe it or not, some wonderful things have come out of this, which I’m sure you don’t hear too often. What’s happening now is families have formed more of a partnership with their clinicians, which is so helpful. We are putting additional orders in for specialty equipment like blood pressure cuffs and glucosometers, so the patients can be measured and get data for themselves at home.This is beneficial because we now have real data while doing telehealth calls when we typically only have patient history to work with.

WAM: During the Covid crisis, are you also seeing patients with many other healthcare conditions like Alzheimer’s?

LYONS-JONES: Definitely. Early on, the messaging made it seem as if Africa Americans would get a pass on getting hit because it was a disease that seemed to be targeting more affluent people, people who travel abroad, etc. But that was a disservice to those who were the most vulnerable. I knew if it hit our community, it would spread like wildfire because of the poor health baseline, and that’s exactly what we saw. Consequently, we have to address those health conditions that were there before Covid. Covid didn’t cause those problems to happen; it actually accelerated things that were already in progress. What we are seeing is an example of a situation happening in rapid, real time; problems that have been going on with the community for decades, like diabetes, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease.

WAM: Just like the coronavirus, Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women of color. How can we get the message out into the African American community that’s better than what we’ve been doing?

LYONS-JONES: Historically, there’s been a difficult relationship between the African American community and the healthcare community. When you look back to slavery times, the slave owner’s relationship with the doctor was actually more important than the doctor’s relationship with the patient. So out on the plantation, the doctor would tend to make decisions that would benefit the plantation owner rather than the property of the plantation owner. So when you have a history like that, it’s a setup for people to have a distrust of the system. Now, what we’re seeing with all of the unrest and police brutality, all that connects back to healthcare…and has contributed to the disproportioned representation of African Americans for having worse outcomes across the board. So in terms of getting the message out to the African American community, you have to go and partner with those spaces that are trustworthy; places like churches, community groups, sororities & fraternities

WAM: How do we encourage more African Americans to become involved in healthcare?

LYONS-JONES: I am actually president-elect of the Association of Black Women Physicians. The important work we do within that organization is generational work. We mentor, sister to sister, and actually follow young women through pre-med school and post graduate work to give them the support they need to study and get funding. We also do scholarship fundraisers and have one coming up in October. All proceeds go to young women and to planting the seeds.

WAM: With health disparity and division in the news, how do we elevate this part of the conversation?

LYONS-JONES: This is an important moment. It’s an opportunity for us to elevate the conversation in terms of racism as a public health emergency and to talk about health equity. Having access to healthcare and holding an insurance card does not guarantee good health for an individual. Racism is a social determinant of health. Your physical environment plays a huge role in your health outcome. Chronic stress plays role in that outcome. When you’re talking about health equity it takes you away from health equality. Right now, if ever there’s a population with a greater need for health equality, it’s the African American community.

For more of Maria’s conversation with Dr. Cozzette Lyons-Jones, click here.