New Cleo initiative aims to help Black and BIPOC families navigate healthcare

While these features are built to be used by all working families on the Cleo platform, it’s those families who do face discrimination that will benefit the most.
By Mallory Hackett
02:16 pm

Today the employer-based family-benefits platform Cleo announced a slew of new product features aimed at helping working Black and BIPOC-identifying families navigate today’s healthcare system.

Discrimination based on race is nothing new in healthcare, but the pandemic laid bare just how much race impacts a person’s health outcomes. In fact, Black and African American individuals are 1.1 times more likely to catch COVID-19, 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized for it and 1.9 times more likely to die because of it than white individuals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is not new to Cleo,” Dr. Chitra Akileswaran, cofounder and chief medical officer at Cleo, told MobiHealthNews. “It was always embedded in our care model, but what we’re doing now is really sort of firming up these activities, particularly towards our Black-identifying families and BIPOC families because we know that there have been very recent and ongoing reporting around the detrimental effects of racism in the healthcare system towards these families.”

Understanding these realities, the Cleo leadership team knew they had to do something for the families they support.

“We had to decide for ourselves where this was on the list of priorities for us – knowing that we can’t invest in everything – and we decided this is actually one of the things at the top and will always remain at the top,” Akileswaran said.


Cleo’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative can be broken down into three categories, according to Akileswaran.

First, the company began creating educational content around birth equity and racial justice in the healthcare system. All of the content is consolidated into the platform’s racial equity category, which is searchable throughout the platform.

While the content is there to help Black and BIPOC families access the best care for them, and to validate feelings they may have about being discriminated against, dismissed or overlooked, it can also be informative to non-minority families.

“The standard that we’re setting is this is actually information that is important to all families, regardless of whether you identify with one of these categories. It’s not being targeted in any way,” Akileswaran said. “It’s that this is what Cleo does now and, in fact, we hope that this will engender a broader conversation even between parents that are white or non-Black or non-Latinx-identifying who are then made aware of the issues that might be impacting people in their communities.”

The second part of Cleo’s DEI initiative focuses on creating pathways to racially and culturally supportive care within the platform itself.

Part of Cleo’s process is matching families with a certified in-house practitioner who acts as a guide throughout the parenting journey – from family planning to pregnancy, to parenthood and beyond.

To help foster long-term relationships, the guides facilitate DEI calls to understand members’ cultural and racial backgrounds, which could play into their care journey. If desired, members can be matched with a guide of the same racial or ethnic background, one who speaks the same language, or one who has experience related to their specific identity.

Today, Cleo has guides serving families across 55 countries, in 13 languages. Many of them are Black and BIPOC identifying, according to Akileswaran.

“We know it doesn’t just stop at Cleo, but how does that person actually go out and interact with a doctor or a healthcare provider that identifies similarly to them. How do they access that person?”

That question is the one that guides the third component of Cleo’s new features. Through its recently announced partnership with Culture Care, a telemedicine platform that connects Black patients with Black providers, the company offers referrals to racially and culturally supportive clinical care.

Patients who have racially or ethnically similar physicians rated their care experience higher than patients without, according to an analysis of Press Ganey Outpatient Medical Practice Surveys published in JAMA Network Open.

“When you pair a Black-identifying patient with a Black-identifying doctor, it’s not just the magic of that happening that somehow rectifies the disparities, but it’s actually the fact that they’re able to have a different kind of discussion and a different level of honesty and candor around what they experience,” Akileswaran said.

“Somehow that allows the patient to be better heard, better seen, better advocated for in the healthcare system, which we know is broken.”

While these features are built to be used by all working families on the Cleo platform, it’s those families who do face discrimination that will benefit the most.

“Specifically for those in the last year who, when they lost daycare, weren’t able to hire a nanny, or those who are essential workers and still have to take the risk and go out to work and weren’t able to work from home, and those who don’t speak English as a first language and therefore can’t really navigate this whole move towards telehealth as well as someone who’s English speaking,” Akileswaran said. “Those are the families where Cleo really makes the difference, and that’s where we believe that by initiating these features as formal parts of Cleo, we’re really completing our mission in ways that we always wanted to.”


Cleo is not alone with its focus on DEI, and experts suggest that there will be greater emphasis on social and demographic determinants of health in a post-COVID-19 world.

Digital health companies Unite Us and NowPow both beefed up their community-referral platforms last year to help combat the impacts of the pandemic.

Cityblock Health, a startup using a tech platform to address health disparities and provide cost-effective care services, raised $160 million last December to expand its reach and build out its offerings.

Health systems themselves have also taken steps to address racism in healthcare. RWJBarnabas Health began its Ending Racism, Together initiative to create racial, ethnic and cultural equity by uplifting disenfranchised communities that face poor health and social, economic, and educational outcomes at the hands of racism.

Elsewhere, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance joined the Cherished Futures for Black Moms and Babies initiative of South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley. The program's goal is to reduce the gap in infant mortality rates between Black and white babies by 30% by 2023.

Focus on Health Equity

In our ongoing coverage, we report on the challenges, opportunities and success stories as work continues to build a healthcare system that works for everyone.


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