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Dr. Michael Smith

Dr. Michael Smith improves outcomes for at-risk populations!

Dr. Michael Smith

“ To quote Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman,’” says Dr. Michael Vincent Smith, CEO and founder of Marti Health. The new health care platform works to improve the quality, consistency and equity of health outcomes for socially at-risk populations beginning with the sickle cell disease community and caregivers.

Smith is a former heart surgeon with significant experience in value-based health care, a business model where doctors are paid to keep people healthy versus treating them just when they’re sick. He has also worked in health equity at Anthem (now Elevance) and Cigna, and as the deputy chief health equity officer with CVS Health. He named the company in honor of King. “We think our job here is to reduce injustices in health care,” says the Chastain Park resident.

Financially supported by the UnitedHealthcare Accelerator program and with a contract with CareSource, Marti Health began enrolling highrisk patients with sickle cell disease into its program this February.

What is sickle cell disease?

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder affecting around 100,000 Americans and more than 20 million people worldwide. It originated from a single gene mutation 7,000 years ago in Sub- Saharan Africa. People who have two copies of this particular gene mutation have sickle cell anemia and sickle cell crisis, where the flow of blood is blocked to an area of the body because the cells have become stuck in the blood vessel.

How does the disease present itself?

It almost always presents within the first two weeks of life and usually no later than six months, though there are exceptions. While it’s much more prevalent in African Americans, it affects all races. Thirty percent of children with sickle cell will have a stroke before age 18 that causes cognitive loss, not motor loss, that is sometimes undiagnosed and impacts learning; 12-26% will have hearing loss by age 18. It causes a life of organ damage, serious pain and premature death—50% die before age 51.

How does the story of Brittany Hightower exemplify the quintessential sickle cell experience?

Brittany was a 22-year-old African American woman in Texas who went to her local ER on Christmas Eve 2022 and complained of severe pain from sickle cell. The ER team didn’t give her adequate medication for the severity. Blunting the pain with high doses of medicine reduces sickle crisis progression and stops the body from killing cells. When Brittany continued to complain, nurses said they could not give her more meds. Then they called the local police who told her to leave the hospital. She died eight days later. When we speak with sickle cell patients, we hear the same story of combined clinical ignorance and cultural insensitivity.

How do you aim to change this outcome with Marti Health?

We are focused on eliminating disparities in health care for special needs populations, starting with sickle cell, and improving the quality and access to comprehensive and compassionate care management. We do this through community-based engagement, a proprietary online platform for early identification of burden of illness and avoidance of acute pain crises, while fostering patient trust and empowerment.

This isn’t your first time finding equitable solutions to fill health care gaps.

When I was chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Atlanta Medical Center from 2005-2009, I became aware of the fact that black men in Atlanta had the nation’s highest rate of dying of lung cancer. So we launched the first early-detection lung cancer program in Georgia, which in conjunction with the Early Lung Cancer Action Project, led to the United States Preventive Task Force guidelines for lung cancer screening. Then I found out that Jehovah’s Witnesses were being denied heart surgery because they can’t take blood [transfusions] for religious reasons. It is possible to perform some open-heart surgeries without giving blood, so we did and were the first in the state to do so. I’m trying to come up with equitable solutions for everybody.


PHOTO: Joann Vitelli

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