The Vast Impact of the IOM Bolsters Efforts to Address Health Disparities and Promote a Culture of Health

Dec 13, 2013, 9:00 AM

Thomas A. LaVeist, PhD, is the William C. and Nancy F. Richardson Professor in Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and founding director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. He also chairs the National Advisory Board of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College and is a former member of the National Advisory Committees for the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program and Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research.


The Institute of Medicine (IOM), perhaps more than any other institution, sets the country’s standards and agenda. The field of health disparities offers a great example. In 2002 the IOM published the report Unequal Treatment. The report compiled the scientific evidence documenting substantial racial and ethnic inequities in the quality of health care received by Americans. The report placed health inequalities on the front burner of the nation’s health policy agenda. Understanding the causes and solutions to racial inequities in health has been the primary focus of my career. While the findings were not a surprise to me, I was elated that the IOM had lent its considerable credibility to this long-standing and vexing problem. I am even more elated, now, to have been elected to membership in the IOM.

I share this honor with many talented and committed colleagues and students who have made invaluable contributions to my work. I accept this honor as recognition that the topics that I have devoted my professional career to have gained acceptance central to the creation of a culture of health in the United States. Data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census shows that, as the 21st century unfolds, Americans that we currently refer to as ethnic minorities will continue to be a growing minority and by mid-century a numerical majority. The health of these “minorities” will define the health of the nation. Minority health issues will simply be American health issues.

I am happy to have the opportunity to begin my membership in the IOM while a member of the Roundtable in Population Health. The Roundtable is co-chaired by David Kindig and George Isham. I am currently on the working group of the Roundtable that is working on the development of metrics for population health. In other words, what measures best reflect whether we have achieved a “culture of health?” There are a number of distinguished scholars on the roundtable, including RWJF Senior Program Officer Pamela Russo.

A primary feature of a culture of health would be a culture without racial, ethnic, or economic health inequalities. While the health indicators for the nation continue to improve, the tragic reality is that African Americans live sicker and die younger than all other American ethnic groups. In the decade since Unequal Treatment’s publication, we have learned a lot about the causes and solutions to health inequalities. However, this knowledge largely remains locked away in medical libraries. I am currently working on project to bring this knowledge to a larger public. The Skin You're In is a feature-length documentary film, website, and book that seeks to do that. The film will be co-produced and directed by Emmy and Peabody Award winning film-maker Sam Pollard (When the Levees Broke, I’ll Make Me a World, Slavery By Another Name, Four Little Girls) and CINE Golden Eagle Awarding winner Paul Sanderson (An American Original, God is the Bigger Elvis, Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master of American Sculpture).

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.