How Can Health Systems Effectively Serve Minority Communities? Improve Medical Literacy, Take a Holistic Approach.

Apr 28, 2014, 2:45 PM

To mark National Minority Health Month, the Human Capital Blog asked several Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) scholars to respond to questions about improving health care for all. In this post, Cheryl C. Onwu, BS, a public health graduate student at Meharry Medical College, responds to the question, “What are the challenges, needs, or opportunities for health systems to effectively serve minority communities?” Onwu is a Health Policy Scholar at the RWJF Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College.


A doctor informed an African American male that he has diabetes mellitus, and medication was prescribed. However, the doctor did not mention the extent of the dangers involved in having diabetes, or “the sugars.” Additionally, the doctor did not explain the detrimental effects if the patient failed to follow the prescription regimens and other recommendations.

Some of the challenges faced by minorities include lack of medical literacy, which can affect their overall health. Clear communication between a health care provider and his or her patients is important, so patients are cognizant of their health status, the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, potential threats to well-being, and how to control health problems.

When talking with health care personnel, all too often clients listen to the doctor and then leave with or without a prescription. But patients may need more if we are to better public health and alleviate health disparities, especially in minority settings. It should be emphasized that clients go to the doctor with questions about their health. Minorities may not have the luxury of having resources that provide additional advice on health, due to their community. Therefore, those in the underrepresented population should be proactive about health and establish effective communication systems with their health care providers—and physicians should stress the importance of different ways to improve health.

Eating nutritiously, working out, and receiving adequate sleep are critical aspects of a healthy lifestyle. This somewhat common platform of health is often overlooked in minority areas and leads to various ailments and chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. If a holistic health approach is stressed by physicians at the primary care level, it may have positive effects for minorities by preventing sicknesses and improving the quality of life.

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