‘How COVID-19 is Reframing Healthcare in America’ with Dr. Ify Osunkwo of the Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health

On Friday March 27th 2020, I launched a limited podcast series addressing how the COVID-19 pandemic is reframing American healthcare. You can find the introduction episode here. In this series, I’ll be interviewing future-facing, courageous healthcare leaders and entrepreneurs – asking two questions:

(1) How is the COVID-19 pandemic immediately changing the way you’re delivering healthcare? (2) How will COVID-19 reframe American healthcare for years to come?

In this episode, we’ll be speaking with a colleague of mine, Dr. Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo, MD, MPH.

Dr Ify Osunkwo – or Dr. Ify, as her patients refer to her – is the Director of the Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) Enterprise at Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health. She is a Professor of Medicine at Atrium Health and a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Ify earned her MD from the University of Nigeria and a Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She completed a pediatric residency at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of NJ, followed by a pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship at Columbia University. She founded the SCD program at Atrium Health. This program has been instrumental in improving the quality of life of persons living with SCD in North & South Carolina; and has also demonstrated positive health outcomes in terms of reduced mortality rates, reduced health care costs and hospital readmission rates, and increased patient engagement and satisfaction with care. Dr Osunkwo has dedicated her career to providing equitable, comprehensive, compassionate and evidence based care for individuals living with SCD. She serves on numerous national committees for the American Society of Hematology and is the Editor-In-Chief of Hematology News.

I felt compelled to share this interview because Dr. Ify is offering a number of humanistic approaches to her patients that are especially important in the COVID-19 era. They are important from a provider/patient relationship perspective in that they directly address the issues of social isolation, loneliness and anxiety that people with chronic medical conditions are experiencing. They are important because they address the concrete issue of chronic disease management, which are disproportionately affected by the social distancing and sheltering-in-place public health efforts. There is little doubt that people with chronic medical conditions and people who are socio-economically vulnerable are impacted upon much more severely than others.

I’m posting this interview with the intention and hope that providers from across the country will be inspired by Dr. Ify’s example and adopt these and/or other similar offerings for their patients; and that healthcare systems across the country will support these providers with resources. All of this is said with the grateful understanding that so many providers and healthcare systems are focused right now on emergency preparedness for the pandemic surge and on treating patients with COVID-19. What I’m sharing in this interview is what I would call 2nd, 3rd and 4th wave issues – addressing the pandemic’s impact on social determinants of health and on the mental health of patients – which, as Dr. Ify points out, has a significant impact on the course and treatment of chronic disease. But, these are issues that we need to begin to address now, even as we battle the 1st wave of the pandemic.

I’ve known Dr. Ify for a number of years. She is a wonderful physician who has a refreshing public health perspective that she applies brilliantly in her practice of medicine. It’s clear that Dr. Ify is incredibly devoted to her patients and is an exemplary role model. Her accomplishments and her positive impact are also a credit to the Levine Cancer Institute and the Atrium Health system that support her in this critically important, meaningful and innovative work.

These are unprecedented times, so I hope you find valuable information, guidance, and inspiration in listening to these experts and entrepreneurs share how they are adapting to this pandemic (in real time); and how they’re thinking about and planning for the future.