Dr. Garth Walker “meets people where they are” to address health care equity

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Celebrating Chicago's Black history by highlighting impactful stories from unique perspectives. Sponsored by AARP Illinois.

Dr. Garth Walker, White House fellow to the Surgeon General, emergency medicine physician, civic leader and father of a newborn, has a lot on his plate. But his full schedule doesn’t deter him from working tirelessly to shrink health care disparities in Chicago and beyond.

As a Chicago native, Walker recognized the dire need for equal health care access following Chicago’s bleak history. Policies that were “born in racism,” like redlining, “still have lingering effects today,” he says, “our wealth and our jobs influence our ability to get good health care.”

By the time Walker started medical school, he knew he wanted to be the type of doctor who scrutinized the socioeconomic issues that make it difficult for certain groups — “oftentimes Black and Brown [communities]” — to access adequate health care.

After medical school, Walker completed a master’s degree in public health from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and emergency medicine training at the University of Chicago. Prior to serving as a White House fellow, Walker was an assistant professor at Northwestern Emergency Department, where he researched social determinants of health. He was also the deputy director for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Throughout his career, Walker has focused on understanding people’s lived experiences, considering risk factors that are out of health care providers’ control, like household size, child care and the ability to take off work. “Having a good understanding of people’s lived experiences makes us better as a society and also shows that we care for our communities,” he says.

In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on risk factors and subsequent health care disparities. As deputy director, Walker led public health strategy, ensuring that marginalized groups were informed about COVID-19 through external messaging. He also advised vaccine operations for state-owned health facilities. “We need to understand more than ever, if we don’t have a healthy population overall, all of us are at risk,” says Walker.

Today, Dr. Walker’s civic leadership extends beyond medicinal health care. He is currently serving as a senior advisor to the Surgeon General to support youth mental health efforts and health care worker wellbeing, which have been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walker has also conducted research on hospital violence intervention programs where community organizations use a holistic approach to work with at-risk individuals. These community-oriented programs can create “a new sense of hope,” he says. “Individuals going back into communities are part of the solution.”

Walker believes that the best way to close health care disparities is to “meet people where they are.” He urges Chicagoans to consider their neighbors and “make sure that all of our families are getting the appropriate opportunities to get good health care.”

For those who are looking to make a difference in creating healthier communities, Walker suggests starting locally. “Oftentimes the small things can improve health outcomes significantly,” he says.

To find volunteer opportunities in your community, visit www.createthegood.org.

And to hear Walker’s story and more stories like this, subscribe to the “Creating the Good with AARP Illinois” podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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