Albany

Outlook 2021: Albany Med exec Antonikowski leads effort toward linked goals of equity, diversity, inclusion

Angela Antonikowski, Albany Medical Center's Chief Officer of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Angela Antonikowski, Albany Medical Center's Chief Officer of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

ALBANY — Angela Antonikowski has a long title: Chief Officer of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Albany Medical Center.

The role and the vision are wide-ranging but interconnected:

  • Health equity is achieved when all people are able to achieve their full health potential.
  • Diversity is the presence of the full spectrum of identities, including those of race, ethnicity, gender, language, ability and sexuality.
  • Inclusion is this diverse spectrum being not merely present in a workforce but stratified — included in all areas and at all levels of the organization.
  • Diversity and inclusion promote health equity.

It’s not a job for one person but for the entire community, within and beyond the hospital walls, Antonikowski said.

“The reality is a role like this is going to take many hands. It’s going to take non-minoritized people to really make equity reality.”

Antonikowski, who is also a practicing clinical psychologist at Albany Med, and a mother of three children ages 9 to 21, and the associate dean for student wellness, was appointed as the diversity leader on July 1. She avails herself of all support available as she manages her various roles.

“I certainly don’t subscribe to the superwoman mentality,” she said, laughing.

FORMATIVE YEARS

Antonikowski, 44, was born into a military family and grew up in San Antonio, Texas.

“During high school, during those formative years, I thought I might be interested in going into law,” she said.

When her husband left the military, they moved to the Capital Region so he could take a General Electric job. She began her academic career at the University at Albany with a dual major in psychology and criminal justice, and psychology captured her interest.

Her part-time work in developmental settings as a student led to her specializing in pediatric psychology as she moved through her academic work (bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, all at UAlbany) and into her professional life.

Her oldest child was just 9 months old when she started all this. Here again, having a good support network and being willing to rely on it made the difference.

The contributing influences of the systems around us play a huge role in our successes and failures, she believes.

Antonikowski said that as a woman of color, she has faced many obstacles from youth to present day, and sees the same barriers facing her children now. Overt racism may be less common today but systemic racism and microaggressions are still common, she said.

Ironically, though, she never felt impacted by the health inequity that faces many people of color and which is now a focal point of her role as chief diversity officer.

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“In that regard, having a mother who was a nurse was quite helpful,” she said.

THE GOAL

So how does one lead an institution to equity, diversion and inclusion?

There’s not a short answer to that question or a simple solution.

Antonikowski has been gathering input, evaluating programs and assessing systems since assuming the role and expects to continue through much of 2021.

The effort is complicated in that the goal is to balance individual needs while building an infrastructure that meets all those needs. The community surrounding the hospital has to be a part of the discussion and planning because it is inextricably linked to the hospital: Most of its employees and patients are residents of that community.

“Community engagement is incredibly important in the success of any [chief diversity officer] effort,” Antonikowsi said.

It also involves changing mindsets, she said, which can be difficult.

Too often, the reaction to proposed change is “what will I (or my group) lose” rather than “what will we gain,” she said.

Also, there’s too often a reflexive attempt to change results without changing the approach to getting those results.

“Inequities can’t be resolved by using the same inequitable system” that created them, Antonikowski said.

“That’s not unlike the psychological work I do with patients,” she added. “I think that’s a root cause we have to acknowledge.”

Building a diverse and inclusive workforce is an example: who does the recruiting, how they do the recruiting and what incentives they use are critical details that will determine the outcome.

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Also necessary is instilling in people who are not marginalized a sense of the barriers facing those who are marginalized. The signs over the water fountains reading “Whites Only” may be gone but the toxic legacy lives on, often subtly for those who aren’t subject to it.

“I think some of the issue is … whether the sign is explicit or implicit, it’s still problematic,” Antonikowski said. “We need to move away from the sense that explicit bias is worse than implicit bias. It’s all bad.”

She gives as an example a policy that cancels the clinical appointment of anyone who is more than 15 minutes late. Whoever created that policy was not trying to exclude marginalized or minority patients from treatment, but that is the disproportionate effect, as these communities more often lack reliable transportation and digital technology, Antonikowski said.

“We have to move away from a zero-sum mentality,” she said — the sense that whatever is gained by one group is lost by another.

It is of course an issue not for Albany Med but for all of America, but solutions can be created at the institutional level.

“I think it often is a balance between not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said.

Antonikowski developed her own hypotheses on the causes and effects of inequity while a student, as clinician and in previous administrative roles.

“But I am but one voice; there are many voices,” she said. That’s why such a large component of her work so far has been studying and listening.

COVID’S SPOTLIGHT

Antonikowski said she has been involved to varying degrees with equity, diversity and inclusion for years. Her promotion to the executive role came in June, a month of national civil unrest on a scale unseen in a half-century.

But it was the ongoing COVID pandemic that brought to fore the healthcare inequity she is now leading the effort to rebalance for Albany Med.

State and national statistics indicate Black New Yorkers and Black Americans are dying of COVID at a rate well in excess of their percentage of the population, and getting vaccinated at a rate well below, she said.

“Historical trust is a factor,” she said — Blacks have been mistreated or undertreated by the medical community through much of American history.

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That mistrust takes time to overcome.

But contemporary racism, “That’s something we can deal with right now,” Antonikowski said.

Problems that Black Americans experience with COVID vaccination include limitations on internet access needed to search the web for hours looking for appointments; non-diverse public health workers encouraging Black people to get the shots and administering the shots; and a dearth of primary care physicians serving Black communities.

“All of these issues are not new,” she said. “COVID is merely highlighting the problems that were there. All of these issues interact.”

The overwhelming evidence indicates a health care system that provides unequal access and unequal care for minority and marginalized communities, she added.

This existed before COVID arrived and continues to extend far beyond COVID during the pandemic.

One of the best-known examples is pregnancy-related deaths. Black women suffered such deaths three times more often than white women from 2007 to 2016, the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2019. The disparity was worse for older Black women, and worse yet for college-educated Black women.

These and other examples indicate access to health care is only the first step in creating health equity, Antonikowski said.

“That is an uncomfortable truth that I think people are struggling with.”

Angela A. Antonikowski at a glance

Age: 44

Childhood home: San Antonio

Current hometown: Niskayuna

Education: Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, clinical psychology, University at Albany

Role: Chief Officer of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Albany Medical Center

Companion animals: Many, including dogs, guinea pigs and fish

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Categories: Business, News, Outlook 2021, Schenectady County

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