Engaging a New Generation of Health Disparities Researchers

Sep 2, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Theresa Simpson, BS, is a 2003 alumna and acting assistant director of Project L/EARN, and a doctoral student at the Rutgers Department of Sociology. Dawne Mouzon, PhD, MPH, MA, is a 1998 alumna and former course instructor for Project L/EARN, and an assistant professor at Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Project L/EARN is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, and Rutgers University.

When we began co-teaching Project L/EARN in the summer of 2006, health disparities was gaining momentum as a field.

At the time, we were both Project L/EARN alumni who shared a background in public health. We were becoming increasingly immersed in disparities through our graduate studies in the health, population and life course concentration of the sociology doctoral program at Rutgers University. 

Directly as a result of that coursework, we began significantly expanding the Project L/EARN curriculum in the area of health disparities. Now, every summer, we hit the ground running the opening week of the program.

In the first lecture, an overview of the field of health disparities, Dawne introduces various theoretical frameworks for studying health disparities, followed by data on the social demography on various race/ethnic groups. She concludes with a series of charts and graphs showing race/ethnic, gender and socioeconomic status (SES) inequities in the epidemiology of health and illness. 

As the first week progresses with an examination of how to approach social science research, Theresa has the students brainstorm about their definitions of “race.” She begins challenging them to imagine different ways to conceptualize race beyond genetics and phenotype, in favor of viewing race as a social construct and a system of stratification. She also teaches how those definitions impact the way in which health research is conducted and how race disparities in health can be interpreted.

In addition to lectures on this topic, Project L/EARN students view the film Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? throughout the summer as an introduction to the field of health disparities. In every cohort, we quickly learn that several students have entered the program believing that health disparities are a simple manifestation of socioeconomic differences. In other words, they believe that people of color suffer worse health outcomes because of their lower socioeconomic profiles. Students are consistently surprised to learn that these stark disparities in health persist even after controlling for SES.

Watching Unnatural Causes allows us to begin a dialogue about social determinants of health. These conversations focus beyond individual health behaviors and more on institutional and structural factors such as racial residential segregation and discrimination. In particular, Project L/EARN students are moved by the episode “When the Bough Breaks,” which shows that college-educated African-American women have higher rates of adverse birth outcomes than high-school educated white women. During critical discussions after this episode, students often express shock at realizing that upward mobility has diminishing returns on health for African-Americans. With this knowledge, students become even more interested in and passionate about pursuing this area of research.

Each summer, we strive to supplement this course material with guest lectures from the distinguished and interdisciplinary faculty of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research. In various years, as time, circumstances and opportunities permit, we also participate in remote conferences such as the National Health Equity Research webcast conducted by the University of North Carolina (formerly the Annual Summer Public Health Research Videoconference on Minority Health) and the RWJF Health Policy Fellows Program at Meharry Medical College. Topics addressed at these conferences have ranged from “Health Disparities and the Policy Context” to “Social Determinants of Health Disparities: Moving the Nation to Care About Social Justice.” Our students have benefited greatly from these conversations and have applied them to their own collaborative work with their mentors and in their graduate studies.

We have been proud to see our former students pursue careers in the field of health disparities, ranging from physicians who practice in underserved neighborhoods to faculty in public health and health policy programs to those who are directly in the policy arena, effecting change at the macro level. We wholeheartedly believe that pipeline programs such as Project L/EARN are needed to train, inspire and diversify the future health and health care workforce.

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