Celebrating National Minority Health Month
April is National Minority Health Month. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) said this observance, originated in 1915 by Booker T. Washington, is a time where we can share information that builds awareness about the disproportionate burden of premature death and illness in minority populations. It is also a time to encourage action through health education, early detection and control of disease complications.
Malati K. Harris, MD, with Free State Family Medicine and a member of HEAT (Health Equity Advancement Team) at LMH Health, said it is good to have a month for dedicated awareness, but ultimately we should strive to get to a place where a month is not needed.
“Aiming to ensure those who are minorities receive equal care and health outcomes as those who are not should become a part of our day-to-day care,” Dr. Harris said. “If bringing awareness to a topic to gain broader focus and attention during a specific month is a launching pad for gaining knowledge, then that is great. However, we need to practice equal care and greater listening every day when meeting with patients.”
Dr. Malati Harris
Dr. Harris shared that many times she has personally known or had a patient who, at some point in their lives, has experienced racism, mistreatment or had distrust towards the medical profession due to their race. She said we cannot talk about health disparities without first discussing systemic racism.
Systemic racism impacts every aspect of our lives, Dr. Harris said, meaning it does not exclude healthcare. Within, and outside of, healthcare systems, people can shy away from discussing and understanding that we all have biases, whether unconscious or not. Dr. Harris said we have all grown up in a society that includes systemic racism and from that, one good step forward is acknowledging and becoming aware of the biases we as a community and healthcare providers have.
“What I try to do in my practice is listen to my patients. Not at a surface level, but at a level of deep understanding to hear what they are saying,” she said. “Many people feel they are not listened to, that someone comes into an exam room with their own agenda and pre-determined diagnosis. This is the reason many Black individuals and other minority groups feel they are dismissed and that their pain is not recognized accurately or is written off as ‘fake’.”
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health (LDCPH) recently released its 2021 Health Equity Report. Dr. Harris said believing Lawrence is exempt from health disparities is just simply not true. The report, focusing on things like unpacking the social determinants of health and their root causes, brings light to the fact that the statistics we see on a national level are just as high right in our backyard.
About the 2021 report
Sonia Jordan, the Director of Informatics for LDCPH, said this past year’s report intended to drive more action. As always, the report features local data, but also touches on personal quotes and encourages community participation.
“Not only will you see the health outcomes in the report, but the key drivers of health as well - things like income, education, housing stability, race and neighborhood safety,” she said. “Looking at the broader systems helps to address positive and negative effects to someone’s health. We can get a glimpse at how different groups have been positively or negatively influenced by the community and its resources.”
Jordan said that when looking at the root causes of the systemic issues, it is important not only to focus on opportunity enhancement, but barrier reduction. Reducing the barriers can lead to better health outcomes.
“We want to reduce the biggest barriers as much as possible. When we can help provide access to low-cost childcare, we can help positively impact the family and child. How we can help enhance the opportunity to find a well-paying job is to reduce the barrier of access to transportation or reduce the barrier of safe child care. Then we can help reduce health outcomes, because we can lower chronic stress that may be due to a bill or other financial issues,” Jordan said.
She also said when looking at the data, public health looks at things from a population level of health - focusing on group rather than an individual - and overall community level. The data from Douglas County is compared to other counties to make sure if the community is far off track, it’s known. However, it’s important to do more than just look at the overall average of a community.
“It is important to us to make sure we carefully look at averages – a lot can hide in averages,” Jordan said. “The majority of the population in Lawrence is white and this can hide important information if we only look at an average. For example, we have a high average of people in Douglas County with bachelor’s degrees. Well, we have three universities in the county. How does bachelor’s degree achievement differ by racial groups or other populations? Making sure to accurately report the data is key to change.”
The Health Equity Report (HER) can be found by visiting LDCPH’s website or clicking the link here. Some of the statistics found include:
- Almost half of the Douglas County households that rent are cost-burdened (spend more than 30% of their income on housing)
- One-in-nine Douglas County Residents report living with a disability, with that proportion climbing to almost 1-in-2 after age 75
- The percent of infants born with low birth weights is statistically higher for mothers identifying as Black, non-Hispanic compared to those identifying as White, Asian or Hispanic, with more than 1-in-8 babies born to Black mothers weighing less than 5.5 lbs.
- As the poverty rate increases in a census tract, life expectancy declines.
Not just a number
“In our community, we can see that health inequities exist,” Erica Hill, the director of both the LMH Health Foundation Finance & Strategic Initiatives & LMH Health Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. “The purpose of this month is to raise awareness about health disparities and health inequities that exist in minority populations and this report from Public Health shares data from our community.”
Hill said the data she sees is what continues to fuel her fire and keep her going strong.
“The numbers in this report represent people in our community,” she said. “It’s not just a number on a spreadsheet. I appreciate the work of Public Health, and as a community, we should be intentional about addressing these disparities and inequities.”
Time for change
Dr. Harris said one of the first steps to growing is education and internal reflection. She said we know from studies that biases and racism exist, but taking steps to understand what your biases are and being teachable and open to correction can be a great step forward.
“Being open to changing your thought process can lead you to be a better physician, community member or friend,” Dr. Harris said. “You will make mistakes, and that is ok. People are there to kindly correct you and after a while, it becomes second nature and you correct yourself. It is always important to internally reflect on what you may have grown up hearing and be open to learning and hearing the facts and making changes to your actions.”