How to Advance Minority Health? Our Educational Systems Can Help.

Apr 25, 2014, 1:00 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, Janet Chang, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., responds to the question, “Minority health is advanced by combating disparities and promoting diversity. How do these two goals overlap?” Chang is an alumna of the RWJF New Connections Program; she studies sociocultural influences on social support, help-seeking, and psychological functioning among diverse ethnic/racial groups.

Given the rapidly changing demographic landscape, ethnic/racial minorities will constitute the majority of the U.S. population by 2043 (U.S. Census, 2010). This inevitable shift to a majority-minority population has far-reaching implications for our society. The future of the United States will largely be determined by how we address growing disparities in income distribution, health care, and health outcomes. Yet, frank discussions about disparities and diversity lag behind the rapid population growth of ethnic/racial minority groups. In this respect, educational systems play a pivotal role in facilitating and shaping the dialogue about diversity. By promoting diversity, we can combat health disparities and advance minority health.

Overcoming disparities and fostering diversity are overlapping aims. When we talk about combating disparities, we shine attention on diversity and the challenges facing our diverse communities. Relative to non-minorities, ethnic/racial minority groups have significant unmet health needs. When we talk about promoting diversity, we also bring to light disparities that perpetuate negative outcomes for diverse groups, including the host of barriers (structural, institutional, and others) inhibiting the pathway to care. However, a great number of Americans, including students in higher education, are simply unaware of the existence or magnitude of ethnic/racial health disparities. Their beliefs and understanding do not mirror the society in which we live, and this is one of the roadblocks to overcoming disparities.

Diversity is a necessary condition for a productive, healthier society. In addition to ethnic/racial and socioeconomic diversity, I also mean diversity of perspectives and understanding. Institutions and individuals vary in the depth of their stated and unstated commitment to diversity and in their understanding of diversity issues. I believe that systemic changes in policies, initiatives, and outcomes that improve minority health are a product of meaningful engagement with diversity, and our educational systems are in a unique position to help us achieve this aim.

Diversity should be at the forefront of higher education missions because education is a major vehicle for societal change. Educational systems can help us create and sustain a pipeline for health professionals, researchers, and policy-makers to serve the multiple needs of a diverse population. As socializing agents, academic institutions can cultivate a greater understanding of diversity, thereby increasing the likelihood that the larger populace is receptive to diversity and related social policies. Students’ perceptions of strong school support for cultural diversity may help promote empathy toward other ethnic/racial groups (Chang & Le, 2010). These perceptions of multiculturalism mirror the social and academic ethos of the school, reflecting messages about diversity transmitted through school norms, activities, social interactions, and educators’ attitudes. Thus, being in a social and academic milieu where cultural diversity is valued may result in profound changes in tolerance for diversity and compassion toward diverse groups.

Fostering diversity is critical to overcoming health disparities. Disparities will be best addressed when our practices, policies, and initiatives in education and other domains mirror our diverse society. Teaching and learning can cultivate enduring interest and foster transformative thinking about race, ethnicity, and culture, which help advance minority health. 

See all the blog posts in this series.

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