September 26, 2003

Forum cites local efforts on health disparities

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U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, right, and Nashville health care attorney Gordon Bonnyman, left, listen as Linda Wright Moore, a Philadelphia-based journalist and communications consultant, discusses health care disparities during a forum co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University Medical Center. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Forum cites local efforts on health disparities

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine this year admitted its most diverse class of medical students, while across town, historically black Meharry Medical College hired three full-time translators for its rapidly growing population of Hispanic patients.

These efforts are designed to help reduce glaring differences in health among different racial and ethnic groups in the United States, but much more needs to be done, speakers said Wednesday during a forum at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel co-sponsored by Harvard University, Meharry, Vanderbilt and the Metro Health Department.

In Nashville, for example, the mortality rate for African-American infants remains stubbornly high – three times greater than the rate for white infants.

Part of the problem is ignorance and apathy, said Dr. David Blumenthal, director of the Harvard Forums on Health.

Blumenthal released the results of a survey conducted last month, which showed that 65 percent of African-Americans and 41 percent of Hispanics believe they and other minority groups receive a lower quality of health care than whites. In comparison, only 22 percent of whites said that minority groups received lower quality of health care.

The minority perception is bolstered by a number of studies which show, even when differences in socioeconomic status and education level are taken into account, that members of minority groups continue to be less likely than whites to receive immunizations, screening mammograms, cardiac catheterizations, kidney transplants – even pain medication for bone fractures.

“This is a country whose people believe in equality,” said Barry Bloom, Ph.D., dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“We believe if they knew the facts, they would not be willing to accept the current status.”

There are bright spots.

In 1999, Nashville’s two medical schools formed the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, an unprecedented collaboration in teaching, research and patient care.

That year, the alliance joined forces with the Metro Health Department to expand the Coalition of Safety Net Providers, a group of hospitals and clinics dedicated to improving health services for low-income and uninsured patients.

Since then, the coalition has attracted nearly $3 million in federal and private funds to support programs such as Bridges to Care, which coordinates health care for the uninsured.

To help address the shortage of minority physicians, Vanderbilt this fall admitted its highest percentage ever of underserved minority students – nearly 9 percent, said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine.

At Meharry, where half of the patients are Hispanic, medical students now receive training in the Spanish equivalents of common medical terms, added Dr. PonJola Coney, dean of the Meharry School of Medicine.

“No one solution is going to work in all parts of our country,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. “We’ve got to invent a solution here in Nashville and spread it nationwide … Let’s fix it here first, then I’m confident it will spread.”