The Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement hosted its “Invent the Burden: Reimagining the Atlanta Healthcare Landscape” breakfast Friday morning, where attendees gathered together to discuss the future of the city’s medical capabilities following the closing of Atlanta Medical Center next month.

The program laid out the organization’s long-term plan to “invert the burden” of obtaining adequate health care away from lower-income communities, opting instead to place the task into the hands of health care providers and other community-oriented programs. The event also shined a light upon existing health disparities within the region, urging attendees to improve the health landscape for all metro Atlantans, especially those accustomed to receiving poor health care options, or a complete lack thereof.

The breakfast featured prominent voices in Atlanta’s political and health care circles, including leadership from the City of Atlanta and management from some of the city’s largest medical corporations, including Grady Health System and Saint Joseph’s Health System.

Speakers centered the conversation around one key principle: improving health care from all angles. 

Steven Bussey, managing director at professional services giant Ernst & Young, said the outstanding issue of inadequate health care expands far beyond funding hospitals.

“[The issue] is not about how we can get more hospital beds,” Bussey said. “But how can we keep people out of hospitals [in the first place].”

Steven Bussey, managing director at professional services giant Ernst & Young (above) shows data on health inequities in Clayton County. Photo by Janelle Ward/The Atlanta Voice

Bussey presented charts and graphs visualizing the health care imbalance between various communities in metro Atlanta. The data showed that life expectancy is greater, on average, in Atlanta’s wealthier, predominantly white suburbs and neighborhoods, while life expectancy is shorter, on average, in the city’s predominately Black and brown neighborhoods in the southernmost portions of the region. Bussey said many factors are responsible for the racial disparity regarding life expectancy, but housing affordability, access to nutritional food and health insurance inequality are the most prominent.

The topic of transportation came up again in a panel featuring leaders in the local health care sphere. The panel’s moderator, Gail Brooks, founder and principal of Atlanta-based Black equity organization The BLK+Cross, said a lack of access to viable health care options hinders lower-class Atlanta residents from obtaining a higher quality of life. In a city like Atlanta where urban sprawl makes traveling to hospitals, doctor’s offices and grocery stores offering healthy alternatives to processed and fast foods more difficult, those financially unable to purchase a car and keep it filled with gasoline tend to suffer more from communal isolation.

This hindrance has only amplified in Georgia communities over the past 10 years, as hospitals across the state shut their doors due to inadequate funding, even throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Wellstar-owned Atlanta Medical Center, one of only two Level I trauma centers in the Atlanta area, closed its emergency department on October 14. The rest of AMC is projected to shut down on November 1. Following the hospital’s closure, Grady Memorial Hospital will house the only Level I trauma center in Atlanta, and will serve as one of only four Level I trauma centers in the state of Georgia. 

To this, panelists explained how their respective health care companies are working to change their approaches to patient outreach.

Kathryn Lawler, CEO of Saint Joseph’s Health System and Mercy Care, said her facilities have witnessed an uptick in walk-in patients since AMC’s closing. She said the public has to change its perception and expectations about community health in order to create a system that works for all demographics.

“People don’t want more surgeries,” Lawler said. “They want to be healthy.”

Shannon Sale, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Grady Health System, said mass hospital closures are a result of the nation’s health care system failing collectively.

“We can’t ‘policy’ our way out of this,” Sale said, explaining that re-imagination is needed in order to fix the current system’s plethora of equity-related issues.

ARCHI intends to reinvent health care in the Atlanta area by utilizing a three-phase process, brought to fruition with the help of dozens of local community partners. Its “innovation” phase focuses on breaking the unhelpful habits of the current health care system and redefining regional health care, classifying education and access to housing, food, employment and transportation as key factors that affect residents’ health, happiness and quality of living.

The next phase of the plan – the “thought leadership” phase – involves spreading word of ARCHI’s mission through newspapers, podcasts and other forms of web-centered media.

The final phase, called the “facilitation” phase, centers heavily on intersecting medical care with the need for housing, partnering with local hospitals and health care providers to ensure metro Atlantans are provided with proper housing whether under hospital supervision or not.

Executive director of ARCHI Jeff Smythe said health care advocates should stay motivated to fight for the equitable health care system they want to see their communities benefit from.

“We don’t have to stand for a system that excludes,” Smythe said during the breakfast.