op-ed: Health Disparities – An Issue for Health Professionals and Patients

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Author:  Dr. Carolyn Britton, President, National Medical Association

This Monday, I will spend the day talking with health care professionals, academics, policy makers, corporate executives, community advocates and others about the very important issue of diversity in health and medicine.  “Fullfilling the Promise: Diversity in Biotechnology” is a day-long summit at the 2009 BIO International Convention in Atlanta that will examine the issue from a number of different perspectives – diversity in the workforce, public policies that address health disparities in communities of color, community outreach and new initiatives to empower people to take a more active role in health.  Each aspect of the issue is important if we are to make sure the needs of diverse communities are considered and addressed in health care.

In particular, health disparities is an issue that affects patients and their families, but also the physicians and other health care providers who care for diverse communities.  Even with today’s modern biomedical advances, people of color suffer higher death rates from diseases, such as cancer, and generally have worse health outcomes than their white counterparts.  And despite outreach and efforts to engage broad groups in clinical trials, people of color are often underrepresented in trials for new medicines, many of them cutting edge biotech therapies that are the next generation of treatments for devastating diseases and disabilities.

First, as health care professionals, we have a responsibility to make sure our patients are educated about their health.  We know that lifestyle factors, such as adopting a healthy diet, increasing physical activity and quitting smoking can reduce risks for a number of diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, which affect all people, including communities of color.  We have to communicate this to our patients and their families.

Also, we should urge patients to take advantage of screenings, vaccines and preventive care to keep themselves and their families healthier.  And when patients are diagnosed with a condition, urge them to learn more about it and connect with others who might be fighting the same health challenge.  Taking such steps increases a patient’s social support network, and it also raises broader community awareness about health conditions, which in turn makes it more likely others will take positive actions to keep themselves healthier.

Another key step to taking full advantage of the latest biomedical breakthroughs is to talk to patients and their families about participating in clinical trials.  Historically, there has been a distrust of participating in health studies because of experiences with unethical research.  But contemporary trials are well-regulated and play a crucial role in bringing new treatments to patients.

It is critical that scientists include communities of color in training programs to produce scientists and biotechnology researchers of the future. To achieve effective diversity programs requires an internal change as well as an external change in terms of outreach.  As scientists learn more about the genetic basis of disease and as biotechnology researchers continue to develop innovative new treatments that tackle specific diseases and disease pathways, a multiethnic and multicultural scientific community will translate these advances to a diverse community more effectively.

These issues relating to health disparities are particularly important for the National Medical Association because our members often treat underserved communities, but they are critical for all health care providers, patients and their families, if we are to improve health in all our communities.