Why is it that, on average, African Americans tend to get sicker and die younger?
Dr. Thomas LaVeist, Ph.D., the director of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Center for Health Disparities Solutions, will present some of his findings on the topic at 3 p.m. this Thursday, April 7, at the Oregon Convention Center, room F150.
The presentation, "It's the Skin You're In: Why African Americans Live Sicker and Die Younger" will question the conventional wisdom of racial health disparities and pose some questions and answers to health care professionals about solving one of the greatest problems to face Black Americans in our times. The talk is free and anyone is welcome to attend.
Dr. LaVeist spoke with The Skanner News briefly from his office at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health about why he thinks current efforts to curb disparities will fail and what motivated him to become an expert.
The Skanner News: Tell us a little bit about what you'll be discussing during your talk Thursday on health disparities among African Americans.
Dr. Thomas LaVeist: I'm going to be talking about health disparities, as they affect African Americans, but not just African Americans and focus on the question of what can be done, mostly from the standpoint of 'how do we diagnose the problem?' The focus is, 'why do we have health disparities?' And I want to talk about that. I think a lot of what we're doing about health disparities is destined to fail and I think the reason it's destined to fail is because we haven't done a good job of first diagnosing the problem.
There are a lot of people who are frustrated by the research and the slow pace of progress, so they want to do something. I understand that instinct. And I feel that instinct as well sometimes. We don't actually have a clear consensus for the diagnosis of health disparities and because of that, we're expending limited resources on some things that are not likely to address the problem. Because they're not really addressing what the true symptoms are.
TSN: Is this more for individuals or for health care workers and researchers?
TL: It's not as much benefitting individuals in terms of telling people how to live a better lifestyle, that's not really what my focus is. I don't think a lot of this is about individual responsibility, although I always think that's an aspect of what I think needs to happen, but I think the disparities are really rooted in the way we organize society. Because of inequality, you see access to things that are protective of health, as well as exposure to things that are harmful of health, distributed inequitably as well. It's that unequal distribution or resources and risk that produces the disparities. So the solution is not going to be based entirely on getting people to change their diets and exercise, although people should live healthy lifestyles. And the solution is not going to be something that necessarily comes out of a doctor's black bag. There's not a pill or potion that's going to cure disparities.
And the other issue is genetics, that there are differences between race groups and disparities produced by these biological differences. While that may be a widely held belief, the scientific evidence is clear that disparities are not produced by biological differences to produce these outcomes. It's really all about how we have inequitably distributed risk and inequitably distrusted health resources.
TSN: What is it about this topic that has piqued your interest and motivated you to pursue this as a specialty?
TL: Well, that's something I'll be getting into in the presentation … so I don't want to give away a good story, but … I was going along in life not aware that there was such a thing as health disparities. In fact, we didn't have that language when I first started doing this work. I discovered that we had this problem by accident. It just became a fascination for me. Why would we have these differences by race? Why would these differences be so consistent? And why would you have differences on social class, because if this was really about genetics, why would a rich person have better outcomes than a poor person? This is not a genetic problem, this is obviously something different. I took a complete change in the direction of my career and I've been trying to understand this problem ever since. Now a lot more people have joined and I'm glad they're working on this topic. And we now have terminology like "health disparities" that we didn't have when I started working and we have sources of funding and resources being put into this area.