Jan 20 2014
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On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an RWJF Scholar and Soon-to-Be Physician Resolves to Help End Health Disparities

Cheryl Chun, MS, MA, is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Scholar (2011) at the Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College and a medical student at Meharry Medical College. She received a BS degree from George Washington University and an MA from American University. She taught for Teach for America for two years. 

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Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, our country takes a moment to reflect on the progress we have made toward becoming the nation we have always strived to be—one of equality. And while many of us would agree that significant headway has been made, we all know that we still have so much farther to go before we can truly achieve Dr. King’s dream. 

I read the local and national news regularly and there always seems to be another article or story that speaks to the ongoing challenges of realizing this equity, including the educational achievement gap, health disparities, and even policies that allow inequalities to continue to exist across our society. It is almost scary that so many critical components of our lives are determined solely by our place of residence. In fact, it’s one’s zip code that often has the greatest impact on the quality of one’s education, one’s future health status, and even the types of food and nutritional resources to which one has access. These social determinants of health ultimately decide who will remain healthy throughout life and who will eventually become unwell.

There are many Americans born into difficult socioeconomic circumstances and who, in turn, must grapple with the aforementioned obstacles. Some of these individuals work incredibly hard to change their trajectories by earning college degrees, obtaining stable employment, and gaining additional access to the types of resources that one might think would improve their quality of life.  

However, a recent New York Times article shows that these same individuals, who we perceive to have been very successful, most ironically pay a price—the deterioration of their long-term health—for beating the odds. The Times describes a study with findings that demonstrate that those children who overcome the obstacles of poverty are more likely to have greater obesity, higher blood pressure, and more stress hormones than their peers who do not make it to college or come from more affluent, educated neighborhoods. 

We Americans love the tale of the “underdog,” a good rags-to-riches account; in fact, we will continue to uphold the stories of children who overcome almost impossible circumstances as the exemplar—as beacons of hope to help motivate peers in similar situations. Still, it alarms me that the price for these celebrations of success comes with a grave, unintended consequence—negative impact on health.

As a soon-to-be-physician, it’s the reality behind these stories that continues to motivate me to work tirelessly in an effort to eliminate health disparities. While the policy debates of the last several months have focused primarily on the affordability of and access to quality health care, I know that it will take much more than adequate health coverage to address these disparities.  Communities must not only come together to provide quality medical care for their sick; they must also work to proactively improve the nonmedical factors that prevent their citizens from living the healthiest lives possible. 

If we can combine our actions across communities, collaborate and innovate together, I know we will finally be able to eliminate the health inequalities that remain so prevalent today—even the unanticipated and unexpected ones the Times article brings to light. So today, as we remember Dr. King and his rousing call to transform our society into one grounded in equality, let us all— even those outside medicine—sincerely recommit ourselves to working to end health disparities in our own ways, by giving everyone access to healthy food options, by helping to make our streets safer so that people can walk and exercise outside, and by educating those around us so that everyone knows how to live a healthier life.

Read about Chun’s non-traditional career path.

Tags: Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, Disparities, Food access, Social determinants of health, Underserved populations, Voices from the Field