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November 21, 2022

By Kelli Tice, M.D., Florida Blue Chief Health Equity Officer

This column first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on November 11, 2022

This weekend, Orlando will be overflowing with proud alumni and students of two of our state’s Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) – Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman University – for the Florida Blue Florida Classic at Camping World Stadium. As a proud graduate of Florida A&M, this weekend is a highlight of my year as I’m able to reconnect with former classmates and network with leaders from across the country who share a similar HBCU college experience. 

In my role as Chief Health Equity Officer for Florida Blue, the state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, I am focused on removing barriers that prevent many minority communities from achieving their best health, and I believe our state’s HBCUs play a key role in addressing those health disparities. 

There isn’t a single solution for achieving health equity. It requires a multifaceted approach that includes addressing access to quality health care, promoting healthy behaviors, correcting income disparities, restoring under-resourced communities, and ensuring minority representation in policy and program development. Another key factor is increasing the number of minorities who obtain secondary and graduate degrees. 

For first generation Black college students from low-income communities, HBCUs provide a stable and nurturing environment for those most at risk of not entering or completing college. 

HBCUs are the lead provider of degrees to Black students, outpacing predominately white institutions in retaining and graduating them, according to the American Journal of Public Health. A Gallop poll also found Black graduates of HBCUs also feel better prepared for life outside of college and are significantly more likely to be thriving compared to their Black peers at other institutions. 

Through their supportive educational experience, universities like Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman help turn the tide of generational poverty for many young Black Floridians and put them on a path to future prosperity that leads to a lifetime of better health and well-being. 

HBCUs like FAMU and BCU also are addressing a major deficiency in our health care system by educating future Black health care professionals and researchers who will address societal health disparities. Although Black or African American individuals make up more than 13% of our population in the U.S., currently only 5.2% of physicians are Black. And Black clinicians make up only 3.3% of physical therapists, 4.7% of speech-language pathologists and 7.5% of pharmacists, according to research from George Washington University. 

Programs such as Bethune-Cookman’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences and FAMU’s Public Health Institute, College of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Schools of Allied Health Sciences and Nursing are instrumental in equipping a diverse, leadership-ready health care workforce. 

My four years at Florida A&M as an undergraduate student were critical to my social, intellectual, and professional development. The foundation I built there helped me throughout my career as a primary care physician, public health official and, today, as a leader dedicated to achieving health equity in our state. 

This weekend’s Florida Blue Florida Classic will, as always, offer opportunities for fellowship, rivalry, and celebration. But at the core, it offers us a chance to support academic programs and scholarships that not only transform the lives of young people, but positively influence the most critical health outcomes in our state. 

Kelli Tice, M.D., is the first-ever Chief Health Equity Officer for GuideWell and Florida Blue. In her role, she leads the organizations’ initiatives to advance health equity and address long-standing social, health, and racial inequities in the communities they serve. She previously spent 17 years as a public health physician, serving in numerous leadership roles including that of county health officer and state medical director for the Florida Department of Health.