Feb 8, 2019 8 min read

Equity Warriors - Danny van Leeuwen

Quote from Transcript.

Episode 3, 14 min listen

Join me as we talk with Danny van Leeuwen about the importance of equity in achieving our "Best Health." Danny "Health Hats" van Leeuwen talks about the concept of equity as it relates to our health and shares examples of why this matters to each of us. He'll also share a little about the work he is doing to shift the "Health Industrial Complex" on this important issue.


Listen on Apple Podcasts   or    Listen on Spotify


In the interview, Danny mentions the concept of redlining and housing segregation. This article will provide a little more insight into the term redlining.


Learn more about Danny here.



[00:00:00] This is State of Inclusion, a place where we can all come together to safely explore and share our ideas at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome. At the heart of any equity and inclusion efforts are the people who tirelessly work to make a difference in the world, and for the people they serve. Who are these Equity Warriors? What motivates them and what even brought them to this work to start with? Even more importantly, what keeps them going in the face of such overwhelming and exhausting work? We’ll talk with a few of them and we’ll learn how they are making a difference in their community and what they hope for in their next chapter.

-Opportunity at the Intersection of Healthcare and Equity

-About Danny

I’m Danny van Leeuwen. I’m also known as Health Hats. I’m Ame Sanders, at State of Inclusion Podcast. We wanted to spend some time today getting to know each other better and discussing the opportunity and work that lies at the intersection of healthcare and equity. So Danny, tell us a little bit about yourself and about the work you’ve been doing as a health practitioner, advocate, and consultant. My stick is Health Hats, and I’m Health Hats because I am a person with multiple sclerosis. I’m a patient. I’ve been the care partner to my grandmother, my mother and my son on their end of life journey. So, I’m a caregiver. I’ve been a registered nurse for more than 40 years. I’ve been a healthcare leader.

So, I wear a lot of hats. While everybody wears lots of hats, I wear them all at once. I have the ability to integrate all those different perspectives. My advocacy is around combining those perspectives and communicating my understanding of healthcare, querying about healthcare, advocating for people at the center of care. And when I say people at the center of care, I mean patients, caregivers, direct care clinicians, and the people that support them. Because I’m often invited to sit at the table as a technical expert. I relish that for several reasons: first, it’s the voice of patient and caregiver, but it’s also because I am a person of privilege. I am able to open the door for other people, which is really just as simple as I’m sitting around the table and I can say well, you know, I’m one voice and there are other voices and those other voices you need to hear from these other voices. It’s great that I’m here, but let’s invite others.

-Your Early Influences

[00:03:02] So, you bring a lot to this work that you do. You bring a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different experiences. When you were growing up, were there people around you who were involved in helping and positively impacting others individually, or in the community? If so, how did that impact you?

My largest influence is my parents. My parents were immigrants. They were Holocaust Survivors. They were upwardly mobile people who were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. They were involved in their church. They were Unitarians. So, I saw them being very community involved, and activists, [00:04:00] and concerned about equity. They were conscious of their own challenges, but they were also aware of their privilege and making use of that privilege, so they did some pretty interesting things. One is, they had two children: my older sister and myself. Then, my mother had cancer and she had a hysterectomy. They wanted to have more kids, and so they adopted. They wanted that adoption to have meaning, so they were the first white couple in Illinois to adopt mixed-race children. We lived in an upper-middle-class, redlined neighborhood, and when they moved away, they sold their house to people of color. They were [00:05:00] instrumental in bringing Martin Luther King to this upper-middle-class white community. So, I had some pretty powerful examples of walking the talk.

[00:05:16] You did have some amazing examples. How did that impact you?

Well, it made me appreciate what I had, it made me appreciate not to take it for granted, and it made me appreciate that with privilege comes responsibility. So, how did you choose the work that you do, now? And is there someone who brought you to this work and somebody that inspired you to do the work you do?

Well, I’m not sure what you mean by this work, because I if you mean that today, I would say that I am a patient caregiver activist, and I would say I’ve been [00:06:00] that my whole life. I don’t know that there is a turning moment. Now, I’ll tell you a funny story, though. I’ll tell you the story about becoming a nurse.

I was living in Detroit. I was 19, maybe 20, and I had a choice between two jobs. I got two job offers at the same time. One of them was with the city of Detroit, reading water meters, and the other was to be a psychiatric nurse’s aide at the Detroit Psychiatric Institute, and reading water meters paid more. But I had to cut my hair, and I didn’t want to cut my hair. So, I took the psychiatric nurse’s aide job, and they were the people that introduced me to the idea of going to nursing school.

[00:06:55] That’s about the most unusual path I have ever heard of someone who became a nurse. That’s great. So, you and I first met through a podcast class, and you shared with me that you had developed some interest in equity and inclusion as it relates to healthcare and you also just recently did another podcast on healthcare and equity.

-Current Work and Focus on Equity

So, tell me a little bit about what you hope to accomplish in your current work by focusing on equity. Why do you think it’s important, and why now?

[00:07:31] I think that my work for my whole career has been about access and inclusion. As I explore this activism, my focus tends to shift. There’s so much out there to focus on, and what I care about, basically, is this journey to Best Health. For me, [00:08:00] Best Health is living at peak performance, no matter your genetics, your biology, your social circumstances or your physical environment. And, while a really important piece of that is medical, it’s really a minority of the factors that are important. So being able to maximize your potential to live Best Health, a lot depends on equity, on being able to access the information, the relationships, the procedures, the medicine, the food that you need to attain Best Health. So, this issue of equity is just fascinating. The deck is so stacked. Here, I am a professional person that’s blessed to have [00:09:00] the professional experience the life experience, the financial means and yet, it’s still hard. It’s still very hard to attain Best Health. So, what I think about, a little Zen here, I think that there are “Magic Levers” in life, and what I mean by that is there are small things that have an outsized effect in Best Health. And, you know a totally obvious one is clean water. Clean water is a magical ever to Best Health. If you can get clean water, you have gone a long way towards Best Health. You can get daily exercise. There are some very simple things. So, I’m interested in those levers.

Now, I’ve been thinking about equity and what are [00:10:00] the levers for equity. Wearing Health Hats that means I have a very broad experience in healthcare. I have a gig where I’m a technical expert on clinical decision support, and I spent the first year of that gig working on clinical decision support about managing pain and reducing opioid use. This year, I’m focusing more on equity.
Clinical decision support is people are making decisions every day about their health about what they’re going to do medically. Most of these decisions are based on evidence, which is the study of populations and it’s about what’s important to me as a person? So, the thing about evidence? I work a lot with researchers and the thing that to me is [00:11:00] interesting about research is all research really does is say that A is more likely than B to be effective for this particular population under these particular circumstances. It doesn’t say crap about whether it’s going to work for me. So, who’s the me? In very simple terms, until recently most research was done on men. Men were the participants in research not women. So then, we’re saying that all this research applies to women? Well, then what about people who are homeless? What about people who are American Indians and live very rurally. So, all this evidence, all it says, again, is that A is more likely than B to be effective with these populations, under these circumstances. I’m interested in expanding those populations and those circumstances. Hence Equity.

-Health Inequities and Bias

[00:12:00] Can you give us an example of some of the kinds of things where inequities or biases, in that kind of research, or inaction could have an effect on us, as individuals. What could that look like?


I have a friend who has Sickle Cell. She is a young Muslim woman of color when she goes to the emergency room. They see a young Muslim woman of color seeking pain medicine for a very difficult, very painful condition, Sickle Cell. So, she has a really hard time getting the pain medicine that she needs. It’s really tragic. It’s like people not understanding the life conditions, the life that people are leading.
You know, in healthcare there’s a lot of talk about health literacy. So that’s us as patients [00:13:00] understanding the rarefied and arcane language of medicine. We don’t talk about the life literacy of researchers of clinicians, of academics, of healthcare businesses. So, people understanding the lives that health occurs in. If you don’t have transportation to a weekly physical therapy appointment for your back pain, well, that’s a barrier. If you live in a food desert and can’t access fresh fruits and vegetables, writing a prescription for fresh fruit and vegetables is not particularly helpful.

[00:13:45] Examples that you give make it very clear the risk that people face when they’re in a system that does not recognize them and does not recognize their, as you said, life situation. People can also have biases against physicians and the medical practices. Well, it doesn’t only go one way, it goes the other way, as well. But, I think you gave us some good examples to think about and to reflect on. And, at least, I’m certainly happy that you are working on this and that you are in a place of privilege to influence this and think about and to be able to make changes on our behalf. So, thank you for that and thank you for joining us. Today, it was really great to talk to you.

This has been State of inclusion, and we’ll be back again next week with another episode of Equity Warriors.


Guest: Danny van Leeuwen

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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