By Reza Corinne Clifton
With additional reporting from Michelle Wilson, Director of Community Services, Urban League of RI. In addition, an abbreviated version of this article appears in the November edition of The Providence American Newspaper.
PROVIDENCE, RI – There is room for you to make a difference.
That was the message last month at the New England Regional Minority Health Conference (NERMHC). Held from October 14 through 16 at the Westin Hotel in Providence and hosted by the RI Department of Health, the theme of NERMHC was “From Disparities to Equity: the Power to Make Change.” The New England Regional Minority Health Committee has been holding conferences like these every two years for the past 10 years with the larger umbrella goal of “Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities by 2010.” PROVIDENCE, RI – There is room for you to make a difference.
Despite what was clearly a success, in terms of the number of attendees this year and the general cohesion of the organizing group, last month marked the end of an era; a founding premise of the committee was to only convene these special regional conferences for ten years. Notwithstanding a few quick comments and attention during the final afternoon of the conference, the business at-hand remained front and center.
A Recognizable Health Leader Addresses the Attendees
The first keynote address of the conference was given by Adewale Troutman, MD, MPH, the Director of the Louisville (Kentucky) Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and, as some may have noticed, a specialist featured in the health documentary, “Unnatural Causes.” His words were powerful and full of imagery.
One of Dr. Troutman’s most memorable remarks included when he explained that disparities cause a number of “excess deaths” in the African American community, alone, that is the equivalent of a 747 airplane crash with no survivors – every day. Furthermore, this trend of avoidable deaths has been happening for years, says Dr. Troutman, as the heyday of health equity was several decades ago, during the most active periods of the Civil Rights Movement.
In terms of today, Dr. Troutman recommends that advocates and community residents analyze the different levels of racism that exist in society – “individualized, institutionalized, and internalized, ” he says, borrowing a concept created by Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD, a nationally acclaimed doctor, health equity advocate and public health leader Specifically, he says look at things like treatment by doctors and support staff, bus routes and schedules, and telling convenience store owners in low-income areas about the profitability of selling fresh fruit.
Regional and Federal Leaders Lend Their Voices Too
NERMHC was filled a number of thematic workshop slots, while other keynote speakers included Garth Graham, MD, MPH; Lisa Renee Holderby, LSWA; and John Ruffin, PhD.
Garth Graham, MD, MPH
Dr. Graham, who is a federal-level Assistant Secretary for Minority Health in the office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, reminded audiences of the absence of people of color in many medical studies and programs. He talked about the significance of comparative research in relation to achieving health equity, and he called on more inclusiveness in outreach that’s done for medical research. Dr. Graham also referred to a new group he is serving with, the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research, which was authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). He also urged healthcare providers to do their part with staying informed and proactive about health-related digital upgrades and IT advances.
Lisa Renee Holderby, LSWA
Holderby’s feedback was important to physicians and providers as well. Speaking from her almost 20 years of work “to improve health in Massachusetts,” Holderby emphasized the value that health educators, grassroots outreach specialists, and devoted community advocates play in reaching target residents and closing gaps in disparities. Referring, in part, to a recent study published by RI Departments of 1) Labor and Training and 2) Elementary and Secondary Education, and Brown University’s Center for Primary Care and Prevention, Holderby – who is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Health Workers – spoke proudly of how numerous and vital her and her colleagues are to the workforce of today and tomorrow. Holder, who is reportedly the first community health worker in the nation with full-time management responsibilities over a statewide association for community health workers, also served on the NERMHC planning committee.
John Ruffin, PhD
Dr. Ruffin, the final keynote speaker of the conference, also spoke in part to the conference’s community health workers. As the Director of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD), Dr. Ruffin oversees several funding initiatives, including those supporting “collaborative research” between scientific researchers and members of the community who are addressing “health disparities in racial/ethnic minorities or other underserved populations.” He also talked in detail about NCMHD’s loan repayment program, which has opportunities for those who have or will earn advanced degrees including, but not limited, to MD’s. “If you are doing health disparities work, we’ll pay for it,” was his clearly stated pitch. He also mentioned opportunities for small businesses through NCMHD.
As if the speakers’ remarks were not enough, through workshops, breakout sessions and more, NERMHC offered dozens of other opportunities and workspace for attendees to cull and share lessons, meet new partners, and reinvigorate those in the movement for health equity. The message to all, whether in attendance or not: There is room for you to make a difference.
Urban Health Watch (www.UrbanHealthWatch.net) is part of the RI Prevention Block Grant, a program funded by the RI Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The blog’s editor, Reza Clifton, joined the NERMHC planning committee in August 2009 as well as presented on community health work during two conference sessions. To learn more abut NERMHC, or to send your events, ideas, or personal stories about health, visit http://www.UrbanHealthWatch.net, email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on UrbanHealthWatch.net.