Martinsville and the surrounding Henry County area could be primed to lead Virginia toward a more equitable healthcare system.
This is according to officials from Virginia’s Department of Health who recently announced Martinsville as one of 15 nationwide locations recognized for local efforts to emphasize race and equity in local healthcare and community wellness.
At the helm of the local effort is a collaborative of almost three dozen concerned residents.
“Here in Martinsville we had no community organization,” said Greg Peitz.
Peitz is part of the Martinsville Henry County Equity Collaborative, a 30-member group of people who have self-tasked themselves with identifying ways Martinsville and surrounding areas can better represent its minority population.
Martinsville’s Black population is 47%, according to recent numbers from the Census Bureau.
While the group was founded in 2021, their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Virginia Department of Health Population Health Manager Nancy Bell said, as part of the 15 locations chosen to take part in the Healing Through Policy: Pathways to Racial Justice Project, the collaborative in Martinsville received state assistance and guidance in their efforts to research and promote equitable changes in healthcare. Along with additional help from the de Beaumont Foundation, National Collaborative for Health Equity, and the American Public Health Association, Martinsville’s collaborative seeks to better contextualize community demographics and wellness.
The collaborative’s first step in doing so was to conduct community surveys.
“We deployed Virginia Tech students and our own community health workers,” Bell said. “And they went neighborhood to neighborhood until we made sure we had everyone represented.”
Surveys are among the fact-finding methods among the project’s 15 participants. While the Martinsville collaborative has focused more on surveys, other methods like truth commissions can be utilized.
From those surveys, the collaborative and health officials hope to establish a minimum of three impactful healthcare changes.
“We’re bringing back the data to the equity collaborative and we have some work to do,” Bell said, adding that one of the findings they plan to emphasize is the existence of varying racial outcomes in healthcare.
“How can we make things better, how can we improve equity,” Bell said.
Wellness disparities in the Martinsville area include an 18% increase in diabetes and high blood pressure among African Americans, according to Population Health Community Coordinator Pamela Chitwood.
Not every policy prescription directly relates to healthcare.
“Policies such as right to counsel for tenants facing eviction help ensure more residents have stable, affordable homes, which is critical for their health and well-being,” said RFA Executive Vice President and Chief Impact Officer Lisa Morrison Butler. “We look forward to working with local leaders to show how the use of data and evidence can help them move from commitment to action in addressing systemic health and racial inequities, and creating thriving communities of opportunity for all.”
Although Peitz described the project as an ongoing effort, officials have described an end goal.
“The goal is to collectively advance the widespread adoption and implementation of policies that have shown positive impact on health and equity,” is how Virginia’s Health Department defines the initiative, with project officials saying Martinsville’s collaborative and the 14 others embody their mission.
“American society is increasingly recognizing the impact of racism on the health of individuals and communities,” said NCHE Executive Director Gail C. Christopher. “More than 250 states, cities, and counties have issued declarations proclaiming racism a public health crisis. This is a step in the right direction. But now, public officials, the private sector, and communities must work together to eliminate racism and improve health outcomes, especially for people of color who have suffered through decades of health inequities.”
Bonnie Favero, another Martinsville-Henry County Collaborative member, referred to their inclusion in the 15-member project as serendipitous.
“The vision of its members is very much in keeping with the goals of the Healing Through Policy program,” Favero said. “Participation in this prestigious program will enable our community to do this in ways we haven’t even thought of. This is a big deal for our community!”