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Mapping a Path to Longer and Healthier Lives Across Atlanta

Jun 10, 2015, 2:52 PM, Posted by Dwayne Proctor

Atlanta Skyline Image via City Clock Magazine

Two Atlanta neighborhoods, Buckhead and Bankhead, are separated by a mere five miles. Even their names are just two small letters apart. And yet the high-end shopping mecca dubbed Buckhead boasts an average life expectancy of 84 years, while in Bankhead—a neighborhood in transition that’s home to a newly burgeoning arts community—its residents face a life expectancy that’s a full 13 years shorter.  

This map of Atlanta—one of a series from the Center for Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), funded by RWJF, shows that our zip codes might be a better predictor of health than our genetic codes. Why? Because where we live affects our health and wellbeing in complex ways. Among them, according to VCU, are a scarcity of jobs and quality schools, and fewer opportunities to access healthy affordable foods and safe places to be active.

This isn’t the first time Atlantans have bore witness to to inequity in their community, and today, community leaders are drawing inspiration from their past. Here in the city that served as the capitol of the Civil Rights Movement, community leaders are responding just as previous generations once did—by bringing together a diverse coalition to advance health equity and serve as a model for communities far beyond the Peachtree State.

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Data, Meet Curiosity: Finding Bright Spots in Appalachia

Apr 1, 2015, 9:20 AM, Posted by David Krol

There are so many opportunities to connect the wealth of data we have at our fingertips and to start asking new questions. David Krol tells his story about how he took this approach to find bright spots in Appalachia.

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If you close your eyes and picture Appalachia, what do you see? The images that often arose first in my mind were those from LIFE Magazine’s 1964 photo essay on the war on poverty. Photojournalist John Dominis gave the nation a face to the plight of Appalachian communities in Eastern Kentucky, and poverty and economic hardship have long been central to an outsider’s understanding of the region ever since. But through my work at the Foundation, I knew this narrative was only one part of the region’s rich and diverse story. I knew there was a different story to be told, and so I wanted to shine a light on these bright spots that demonstrate how health can flourish across Appalachia.

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A TED Dare: Here’s Reality. Now Do Something About it.

Mar 19, 2015, 12:31 AM, Posted by Jessica Mark

TED Ensure Healthy Communities

Everyone in America deserves a chance to live the healthiest life possible. The reality is a bit more complicated: A person’s ZIP code, after all, can be as important as their genetic code when it comes to determining health. A true Culture of Health in the United States won’t be possible unless we address the inequities that allow some full access to a healthier life, while others are left to struggle.

This week, RWJF arrived at the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a challenge for attendees: Try to understand what millions of people face in their pursuit of a healthy life. And in the spirit of the conference’s “Truth & Dare” theme, we dared the TED participants to envision a future in which everyone had access and a path to a healthier life. How might that happen? So far we’re hearing incredible ideas: let’s get to a place where we can celebrate justice rather than seek justice. Let’s make smarter choices about where we spend our health care.

We’ve enlisted five talented—brilliant, really—young filmmakers to help us. We asked each of them to tell the stories of their lives and to document the challenges that sometimes seem distant, but that are all too real for the people in their worlds. Check out their remarkable stories:

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Investing in Systems Changes to Transform Lives

Mar 10, 2015, 10:00 AM, Posted by Catherine Malone, Najaf Ahmad

We know that in order to address health disparities head on, we'll have to implement changes to the systems that influence where we live, learn, work, and play. Oscar and Jose's stories show us that it's possible.   

I was looking at somebody who could be a great person...who could do something great in his future. I also knew that if I sent him to prison, I’d knock him off of that road to success.

In the quote above, Steven Teske, a Juvenile Chief Judge in Clayton County, Georgia is describing the first time he encountered 15-year-old Oscar Mayes as he entered the courtroom in handcuffs. Judge Teske noticed that Oscar was an extremely bright young man and that he had no prior run-ins with the law. Yet Oscar was facing five years in the state’s long term lock up—five years that could have ruined his future.

Fortunately, Oscar literally got a Second Chance. This Clayton County initiative gives youth facing prison an opportunity to redeem themselves through intensive supervision, participation in evidence-based treatment programs, and weekly check-ins with the court. Judge Teske and others in his community had realized that too many of their students were falling out of school and heading into the criminal justice system. To address this, the Juvenile Court partnered with local schools and law enforcement to find ways of disciplining youth while keeping them “in school, out of court, and onto a positive, healthy future.”

Interventions like this have yielded impressive statistics in Clayton County: School arrests have gone down 83% and school attendance has gone up 86%. Clayton County’s approach to juvenile justice reflects the transformational impact that changing a system can have.

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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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