Dr. Gary-Webb goes to Washington

For Tiffany Gary-Webb, PhD, the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue started with a video call.

Gary-Webb, associate professor of epidemiology, accepted an invitation to join other Pennsylvania health equity leaders in a White House-sponsored listening session held this past May, during which she had five minutes to discuss Pittsburgh-area concerns.

“There were maybe 20 people on the Zoom,” says Gary-Webb, who is also associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Public Health. The mostly Philadelphia-area group included physicians, nurses and social workers as well as epidemiologists.

Since then, Gary-Webb attended other phone conferences organized by Vice President Kamala Harris’ office and the White House Office of Public Engagement to discuss issues that disproportionately affect people of color, those with lower socioeconomic status and other historically marginalized individuals.

In late August, Gary-Webb was invited to join health equity thought leaders from across the country at the White House for an in-person networking session.

Dr. Alister Martin, an emergency medicine physician at Harvard who was one of two MDs serving as a White House fellow, led a group tour around the elegant East Wing while they compared programs and strategies to address health disparities.

For example, John Purakal, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Duke University School of Medicine and a core faculty member at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, shared Duke’s commitment to screen individuals using emergency services systemwide for social determinants of health.

Gary-Webb told the group about her work with colleagues to form Pittsburgh’s Black Equity Coalition to address COVID-19-related disparities, and other targeted community-level programs focusing on chronic disease prevention. The work is based on strategic partnerships to improve nutrition, physical activity and access to health care.

“Once again, the pandemic exposed disproportionate burdens Black residents have faced—not because of anything specific about the virus, but because of persistent social inequities in employment, housing, health, education and exposure to environmental and climate hazards,” she says.

Since spring 2020, the Black Equity Coalition has demonstrated how community, nonprofit, academic, philanthropic, political and medical professionals can combine their expertise and resources to promote preventive health services and social equity. Much more work, however, remains to be done—in Pittsburgh and across the country.

“It was a really nice opportunity to meet other leaders and talk about working together,” says Gary-Webb. Specifically, new collaborations are afoot between Gary-Webb and Sandra E. Brooks, MD, MBA, chief medical officer of Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals and executive vice president and chief community health equity officer at Thomas Jefferson University.

“We agreed to connect because we’ve been doing a lot more work across the state,” adds Gary-Webb, citing COVID project funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Black Equity Coalition.

Martin, who recently returned to Harvard, advised the group to expect future White House calls.

“We’re on their list,” she says.