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A New Approach to Eliminating Health Disparities

Feb 10, 2015, 2:13 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Spokane Adverse Childhood Experiences Last year, Spokane County received the Foundation's Culture of Health Prize for improving community health by addressing the critical link between poverty, education, and poor health. Here, children play at St. Anne's Center in Spokane, where teachers are trained to catch and address early warning signs that may indicate future problems in school.

I, like many others, have made a commitment to living healthier this year. I am resolved to find and eat a new fruit and vegetable each month, decrease my consumption of meat to a few times a week, and drink at least a half-gallon of water each day. I also plan to laugh more and spend more time outdoors. My personal goals aside, I also find myself more hopeful than at the start of many past years about the state of health in our nation as a whole.

  • More Americans than ever before have access to the health care they need because of the Affordable Care Act;
  • States throughout the nation are making significant progress in helping kids achieve a healthy weight;
  • The disparities gap between black and white Americans’ life expectancies is narrowing.

These bright spots indicate that America is heading down the road to better health—but they only begin to address the challenges many Americans continue to face in accessing good health. As highlighted in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, significant gaps and unmet needs remain.

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Identifying the Causes of a Persistent Health Disparity: High Blood Pressure Among African-Americans

Jan 29, 2015, 7:31 AM, Posted by Jacquelyn Taylor

Jacquelyn Taylor, PhD, PNP-BC, RN, FAAN, is an associate professor of nursing at Yale University and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program (2008-2012). She recently received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research, a department of the National Institutes of Health, to conduct a large-scale study on the influence of genetic and psychological factors on high blood pressure in African-American women and children.

Jackie Taylor Jacquelyn Taylor

Human Capital Blog: Congratulations on your new grant from the National Institutes of Health to study blood pressure in African-Americans. What will be your focus?

Jacquelyn Taylor: African-Americans have the highest incidence of hypertension of any racial or ethnic group in our country. Studies show that some medications don’t work very well in reducing blood pressure in this population, and we are convinced that some other underlying mechanisms are at play. My co-principal investigator, Cindy Crusto, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Yale School of Medicine, and our research team and I will be studying two of those—genetic markers and psychological factors, such as perceived feelings of racism, mental health, and parenting behaviors—in our study. We want to know what effects these variables have on increases in blood pressure among African-American women and children over time.

HCB: Does this study build on your earlier work?

Taylor: In a previous study in Detroit, I looked at gene-environment interactions for high blood pressure in three generations of African-American women and identified hypertension risk alleles in grandmothers and in their daughters and granddaughters. Then I replicated the study in West Africa, where people live the same way as they did in the 1400s—in clay huts, with no running water, no sanitation, and no fast food as in the developed areas such as Detroit. The West African Dogon sample were mostly underweight, participated in large amount of physical activity, and had a limited but healthy diet. But they still had the same genetic markers for hypertension that I had identified in the sample in Detroit.

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Diabetes: The Case for Considering Context

Jan 27, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Tiffany Green

At Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Briana Mezuk, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, Division of Epidemiology; and Tiffany L. Green, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research. Both are alumnae of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program.

Tiffany Green Tiffany L. Green, PhD
Briana Mezuk Briana Mezuk, PhD

Approximately 30 million U.S. adults currently have diabetes, and an additional 86 million have pre-diabetes. The incidence of diabetes has increased substantially over the past 30 years, including among children. Estimates place the direct and indirect costs of diabetes at a staggering $218 billion annually.1 Like many other diseases, disparities on the basis of race and income are apparent with diabetes. Non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanic whites and socioeconomically advantaged groups. 

Despite the enormous economic and social costs associated with diabetes, it remains a struggle to apply what we know about diabetes prevention to communities at the highest risk. We have robust evidence from randomized controlled trials that changing health behaviors, including adopting a healthy diet and regular exercise routine and subsequent weight loss, will significantly lower the risk of diabetes. Unfortunately, these promising findings only appear to apply to the short-term. Even worse, results from community-based translation efforts have been much more modest than expected, and show only limited promise of reducing long-term diabetes risk. In response, leaders at the National Institutes of Health have noted that many efforts at translating clinical findings into community settings are “limited in scope and applicability, underemphasizing the value of context.”2

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Calling All Nurses to Address Health Disparities

Jan 16, 2015, 10:11 AM, Posted by Susan Hassmiller

Susan Hassmiller

I spent the 2014 holiday season reading a book by Sarah Wildman called Paper Love. She describes how she, as a journalist, examined the fate of her Jewish predecessors, including her grandfather and his long lost love. I selected the book because my father was a Jew of Polish descent.

Wildman describes the horrific atrocities bestowed upon the Jews. Of course I knew of the Holocaust growing up, but as I get older, the connections between past and present seem to be more important. While I don’t know of any relative who was personally affected or killed, someone in my extended family very likely was. I pondered my own existence and how it may have depended on a relative escaping Europe and immigrating to the United States to escape the death camps. It is unspeakable how one man’s view of what is mainstream or normal sent so many others to their death.

I am not naive enough to believe that prejudice is a curse of the past. Stark data on health disparities continue to mount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on Health Disparities and Inequalities (2013) found that mortality rates from chronic illness, premature births, suicide, auto accidents, and drugs were all higher for certain minority populations.

But I believe passionately that nurses and other health professionals can be part of the solution to addressing these disparities. Nurses are privileged to enter into the lives of others in a very intimate way, and that means lives that are, more often than not, very different than our own.

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Visibility and Voice: A Call to Action in the Face of Invisibility and Resistance

Jan 7, 2015, 9:00 AM

Janet Chang, PhD, is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections Program and an assistant research scientist at the University of Connecticut. Chang received a PhD from the University of California, Davis, and a BA from Swarthmore College. She studies sociocultural influences on social support, help seeking, and psychological functioning among diverse ethnic/racial groups.

Janet Chang
Health Care in 2015 logo

In the past year, there has been heightened national press coverage of anti-minority sentiments, and public outcry over discriminatory incidents in the United States. The publicized nature of these events stimulated intense debate. Some, especially those who believe in racial colorblindness, have argued that outraged individuals are overly sensitive and quick to assume that prejudice and discrimination are the cause. On the one hand, this perspective provides psychological comfort by downplaying the importance of race, minimizing the impression of bias, emphasizing our common humanity, and upholding egalitarian principles. On the other hand, it is upsetting and harmful because it denies the lived reality of racial/ethnic minorities. Colorblindness renders well-documented racial/ethnic disparities invisible.

Belief in colorblind ideologies perpetuates false notions that discrimination is rare. As a result, colorblindness, along with a complex host of factors, promotes ethnic/racial disparities in wide-ranging important domains, such as health and health care, criminal justice, housing, education, and employment and advancement in the workplace. Colorblindness reinforces the myth of meritocracy, which places value on individual effort and ability but overlooks structural factors that inhibit positive outcomes for vulnerable or disadvantaged populations.

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Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health

Dec 19, 2014, 12:15 AM

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo

On December 5, 2014, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) held its first Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health. It was a dynamic event that drew a standing-room-only audience in Washington, D.C. Following the conversation, the Human Capital Blog asked six participants to answer the question, What do you think is the most important step the country can take now to make progress in reducing disparities?

Gloria Sanchez, MD 
Alumna, RWJF Summer Medical and Dental Education Program

Gloria Sanchez

“The United States has the ability to reduce disparities, but we need a movement that creates neighborhoods that provide sound and affordable nutrition, safe environments to exercise, and supportive communities that are free of pollution. Initiatives should guarantee that those individuals most afflicted by disparities are engaged in re-inventing their communities through assessments and interventions that truly create sustainable, positive change.

“Our nation can overcome the multitude of disparities that afflict so many. With directed resources, research, compassion, and community involvement, there is no doubt we will achieve equality.”

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African-American Men’s Health: A State of Emergency

Dec 15, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Roland J. Thorpe, Jr.

Roland J. Thorpe, Jr., PhD, MS, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The first RWJF Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health was held December 5th. The conversation continues here on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo

Nearly half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Yet decades later, only modest progress has been made to reduce the pervasive race- and sex-based disparities that exist in this country. African-American men who are at the intersection of race and sex have a worse health profile than other race/sex groups.  This is dramatically evidenced by the trend in life expectancy.

Roland Thorpe

For example, African-American life expectancy has been the lowest compared to other groups ever since these data have been collected. Today the lifespan of African-American men is about six years shorter than that of white men.  Furthermore, a study from the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions provides a financial perspective around this issue.

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How to Build a Healthier Millennial

Dec 11, 2014, 4:50 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor, Kristin Schubert

Game of Life Photo: Will Folsom

 

Millennials get a lot of attention as today’s trendsetters. What are they buying? What social media are they using? How are they voting?  But there is an equally important question that is rarely raised: How healthy are 20-somethings? A new report explores that last question, and the answers are not good. An even better question might be: What’s standing in the way of healthier, more productive lives for millennials?

Adults between the ages of 18 and 26 are "surprisingly unhealthy," according to the report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC). One out of every four young adults is obese, and those numbers are rising. One in 10 has suffered from untreated mental illnesses within the past year. What lies behind these disturbing trends might be a much bigger issue than what young people choose to eat or how they handle stress. The report points to big-picture causes—broken pathways from quality education to solid jobs, and widening disparities that make it harder for marginalized young adults to succeed.

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We Are All Tuskegee

Dec 10, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Collins O. Airhihenbuwa

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa, PhD, MPH, is professor and head of the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University. The first RWJF Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health was held last week. The conversation continues here on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo

As we address disparities and inequities, the challenge is to think about solutions and not simply defining the problem. Most would agree that health is the most important part of who we are. It is the first thing we think about in the morning when we greet one another by asking, “How are you this morning?” It is the last thing we think about at night when we wish someone a restful night.

Collins Airhihenbuwa

What may be different is what health means to us and our families. This is why place and context are important. How we think about health and what we choose to do about it is very much influenced by where we reside. Our place and related cultural differences about health are less about right or wrong and more about ways of relating and meeting expectations our families and communities may have of us, whether expressed or perceived. More than that is the way we relate to what our place means in terms of how it is defined and subsequently how that definition shapes how we define it for ourselves. In other words the ‘gate’ through which we talk about our place and ourselves is very important in having a conversation about who we are and what that means for our health.

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At the Crossroads of Risk and Resiliency: Averting High School Dropouts

Dec 8, 2014, 12:35 PM, Posted by Karen Johnson

Karen Johnson, PhD, RN, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. Her research focuses on vulnerable youth. The first RWJF Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health was held last week. The conversation continues here on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo

As Americans, we love stories about people who beat the odds and achieve success. We flock to movie theaters to watch inspiring tales—many times based on true stories—of resilient young people who have overcome unthinkable adversities (e.g., abuse, growing up in impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods) to grow into healthy and happy adults. Antwone Fisher, The Blind Side, Precious, and Lean On Me are just a few of my personal favorites that highlight the very real struggles faced by adolescents like those I have worked with as a public health nurse. My work with adolescent mothers and now as an adolescent health researcher has convinced me of the critical importance of focusing on promoting health and resilience among adolescents at-risk for school dropout.

Karen Johnson

How often do we as a society really sit down outside the movie theater or walls of academia and talk about why these young people are at risk for poor health and social outcomes in the first place, or what it would take to help them rise above adversity? If we look closely at the storylines of resilient youth, we will notice a number of similarities. Being resilient does not happen by chance: it takes personal resolve from the individual—something our American culture has long celebrated. And it takes a collective commitment from society to maintain conditions that empower young people to be resilient, and that is something that we as a society do not recognize or invest in nearly as often.  

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