Black Health & Wellness
by Glaceria Brown Mason
originally published in Diversity Works Winter 2022 edition
Black History Month honors the achievements of African Americans. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the organization which determines the national Black History focus, has designated the 2022 theme, Black Health and Wellness. The theme opens the door of discussion with the medical community, on the health and health care disparities of African Americans. As we move into a New Year and prepare to commemorate National Black History Month, HopeHealth’s Behavioral Health Consultant Manager, Sharon Black, LICSW and the Director of Preventive Medicine, Dr. Heather Leisy contributed to this important discussion about health and health care disparities in the African American community. Health disparities refer to systematic differences in health within certain populations. These differences are the factors that lead to disadvantages in populations that affect health status and outcomes. Health care disparities are differences that population groups face that impact their access to health care, and the quality and extent of the health care coverage they receive. The current state of Black Health and Wellness today, “is better than it has been in the past, however, we continue to struggle with health disparities in a lot of areas such as smoking, obesity, hypertension, heart disease and cancer,” according to Black. “African Americans’ lives are still adversely affected by these issues. This is depicted in the healthcare statistics, throughout society, and systems where African Americans are oppressed and experience ongoing injustice,” Black adds. Having personal experiences with health care disparities, Black shared, “as an African American provider, these disparities matter to me because I want to see my culture continue to improve and have fair treatment just as our counterparts. I want the barriers to be eliminated so that we can thrive in society as much as our counterparts. Equity is important so that we all can have a fair chance to a quality life and lifestyle. I want to see all patients’ health improved and them thriving in life.” Stanford Health Care lists the rate of hypertension in African Americans as among the highest of any ethnic group in the U.S. While many factors, including genetics may play a part, health care disparities also contribute. “The topic of health disparities and health care disparities is important because, “they influence and determine the overall health, the quality of life within, and the economic outcomes of communities. Disparities create barriers for population groups who need services and deserve the opportunity to achieve healthy outcomes. If disparities are not addressed, quality of health and outcomes will not improve,” explained Black. One of the goals of the Healthy People 2000 initiative is to reduce health disparities among Americans. While disparities have improved, they still exist and are exemplified when people of lower socioeconomic status experience challenges in obtaining health coverage, or a lack of access to appropriate health care and achieving desired health outcomes. “HopeHealth is continually addressing social determinants of health factors that affect our patients.We depend on our community partners and resources to help address the needs of our patients that are outside our scope of expertise. It is important to serve patients in this way as we know that food, transportation, insurance, employment, support systems and more, greatly influence someone’s health and wellness. The linkage to services and continuity of care that our patients receive help improve our community health outcomes,” said Black. Black emphasized that, limited resources in rural areas and inequity continues to be a challenge in addressing both disparities in the community. Further, she says poor economics, education, cultural competency, systemic injustices, oppression, and limited education are just some of the dynamics which create ongoing challenges. In answer to the question of why it has taken so long for health disparities to be alleviated in the African American community, Black and Leisy gave similar responses that stemmed from a history of mistrust and injustices. Leisy responded that, “in communities in which African Americans have lived, jurisdictions, road developments, voting privileges, all potentially affecting their funding of education and social mobility. Economic developments in the neighborhoods and work opportunities are not quick processes, especially with lingering inherent biases that exist. Steps and laws in these areas need to occur and health disparities improvement will follow. There has been movement in decreasing these gaps of health over time, just not at the speed or equality level many providers hope for.” Black interjected that in addition, “there is also a lack of knowledge and education, mental health issues, lifestyle and behaviors, food insecurities, unemployment, and lack of cultural diversity which play a huge role.” Initiatives to address disparities in the African American culture can be found in community-based initiatives, health ministries within the faith-based community, ongoing education and community forums, and dissemination of health information. HopeHealth, has many efforts and initiatives to minimize and address disparities. Financial situations and insurance coverage are often barriers to care. There are programs in place to strengthen relationships and build trust among underserved populations. HopeHealth provides services to all patients regardless of insurance status. “We are dedicated to helping make health care affordable for everyone. We also provide access to ACA enrollment,” said Black. Leisy revealed, “one of the reasons why I am so personally interested in population health is because this avenue can highlight disparities by looking at groups and seeing scientifically identified differences that need addressing. So first is awareness. We must know what the disparities are and where they are located. Next, is getting to earlier means of prevention.” Leisy says, “one of the benefits of working in aFederally Qualified Health Center is that we work closely with community partners in attempts to elevate the social surroundings of our community and implement behavioral education. So, looking at housing, education, transportation, safety is where we need to start to address disparities. Specifics for health care disparities are tracked by utilizing quality of care measures and initiatives, these help identify those with poorer health and give them additional assistance such as chronic care management, financial aid, case management and care navigators.” Lastly, to address disparities in the African American community, clinical trials must be included in the conversation. Notwithstanding the historical mistrust which stem from the atrocities of the past, Black and Leisy explained why it is so important to participate in clinical trials. The NIH defines clinical trials as research studies performed in people that are aimed at evaluating a medical, surgical or behavioral intervention. Clinical trials are the primary ways in which researchers find out if a new treatment is safe and effective. Leisy, shared, “it is so important because you can only make conclusions of result on the population that was studied. If there are no African Americans within the research group, then the claims of health benefits or how it would affect that population cannot be known.” Black said, “It is important to have diversity in clinical trials because of the underrepresentation in research to further help understand health populations in African Americans. It also provides hope for minority populations and to identify potential treatments that will improve quality of health and life.” So let us commemorate the 2022 Black History theme of Black Health and Wellness by raising the awareness of African Americans health and health care disparities.