How NBA Legend Spencer Haywood is working to make healthcare more equitable

Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images /

After a Hall of Fame career, former ABA and NBA star Spencer Haywood is now fighting the inequalities of the healthcare system

Spencer Haywood has always been a pioneer. He was the first basketball player to leave college early when he signed with the ABA’s Denver Rockets after his sophomore year and garnered many accolades on his way to the Naismith Hall of Fame. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, he is applying his energy to combating its spread by being a bridge between the medical community and the marginalized communities that have been disproportionately affected by it. He has taken on a role as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee at Roseman University College of Medicine in Henderson, Nevada. In this capacity, he will be doing community outreach and offering his thoughts to the board as they develop and implement new programs to reach those in need.

When asked what spurred his interest in the program, he said, “I looked at all of the fear that’s out there from Black people, Hispanic people, Asian people about going to the doctor or going to get a vaccine and there’s that fear because we don’t have spokespersons or doctors… I met the staff and Dr. Greer and all of the other greats over there. I got my two vaccines from Roseman and, to promote it, we had the same goals so I just joined in.”

Haywood has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada for the last 11 years and part of his concern arises from allegiance to his adopted home. “I want to see good things for Nevada, I want to see good things for Nevadans.” And in light of the state relying so much on tourism, he notes that “If we are all sick with COVID, we can’t have visitors, we can’t have businesses, and our community is going to fall.”

Spencer Haywood is using his platform for the public good

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in the eyes of Haywood and Dr. Pedro Greer, the founding dean of Roseman’s College of Medicine, is the lack of trust that many groups, especially communities of color, have towards the medical establishment. When speaking about why they believe this is such a problem, both Haywood and Dr. Greer referred back to the Tuskegee Study. This study ran for four decades and involved United States public health authorities purporting to treat Black men with syphilis. However, the true aim of the study was to see what happened when the infection was left untreated. The men never received any aid and over 100 died from syphilis itself or from complications related to it. Haywood also referred to the history of women of color being forcibly sterilized throughout the 20th century by doctors under the authorization of eugenics laws. In light of this, a major part of the program is outreach that will help to rectify this history of neglect and abuse.

It’s an important issue to address since, as Dr. Greer notes, the most determinative factor in the United States for one’s morbidity or mortality after contracting COVID-19 is one’s zip code. And due to the way that segregation still persists in many areas throughout the country, this has meant that, “the African-American and Hispanic communities were unfairly targeted by COVID… We have a horrendous system that does not include everybody.”

Much of the program’s emphasis, therefore, lies in reaching out to communities where distrust is high and access is low. As Dr. Greer says, “We need to produce the physician of the future, that is more diverse, gets rid of the disparities in this country and allows first-generation college students the opportunity to become professionals. It’s our job as a profession to turn around and say we have done wrong and we need advice on how to do it right.” The hope is that connecting with these groups will encourage younger persons to enter into medicine themselves so that the field’s imbalances in racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds can be lessened.

“We start at a very early age to show them that they can be a doctor, they can be a nurse, they can be a pharmacist, they can be a dentist. There’s no reason why not.” Haywood compares the process to that of athletic development: “We take our young kids and say you’re going to be a good athlete and we put them in programs so by the time they reach 21-22, they’re ready and qualified in the NBA. Why not take that same approach as far as medicine and creating doctors and people in the medical field?”

Haywood sees his role being, “to amplify the program a thousand-fold with my voice” and to get young students and other people involved. He also adopts an air of humility when talking about his place as a spokesperson. “I’m just part of the team,” he says. “[The doctors] are the real professionals. I’m just the person bringing some light to the program.” Dr. Greer believes that Haywood, with all his on-court achievements, will be a voice that others trust, that those in marginalized communities will respect and want to listen to: “If you bring in someone like Spencer Haywood with all that he has accomplished and where he came from, he becomes a spokesperson and it allows us into a community. All of a sudden we have a trusted individual that maybe those in the community will listen to.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, with cases rising yet again due to the new Delta Variant, it is as incumbent as ever for people to get vaccinated and take every possible precaution to ensure that they and their communities remain healthy. Roseman’s new initiatives are devoted to lessening the impact of the coronavirus in the Las Vegas area through outreach and education initiatives. They also hope to lessen the inequalities in healthcare by educating doctors who are accountable to the communities they work in and alongside, and therefore more able to meet their particular needs. And Spencer Haywood appears to be just the man to help Roseman as they attempt to rectify these problems. “I am all bought in. I just want to see growth in this industry. My daughter is a doctor and I want to see us develop some doctors.”

light. Related Story. New biography tells how Spencer Haywood remade the NBA