ATLANTA – Just over a year ago, a 12-year-old boy, Deamonte Driver, went to a hospital in Maryland's Prince Georges County and was diagnosed with a tooth abscess and sinusitis. He was given antibiotics and sent home.
A few weeks later, his mother, Alyce Driver, was burying her son. She couldn't afford the $80 to have Deamonte's tooth extracted, and bacteria from the infected tooth migrated to his brain and killed him.
Deamonte Driver became another victim of the health disparities that grip this nation. All across the country, African American men, women and children suffer and die prematurely because people of color are in far poorer health than Whites, and are more likely not to have health insurance. African Americans suffer disproportionately from diseases ranging from heart disease, to diabetes and certain cancers. And the infant mortality rate for African Americans is higher than any other demographic in our society.
Belatedly, experts have come to realize there is no single reason for health disparities – there are many. African Americans are in poor health because of their total environment. Clearly, the combinations of social and economic conditions under which people of color live are the determinants that ultimately impact our health. These conditions include income level, social status, social supports, political environment, education, employment, ecological environment, and culture – just to name a few.
Moreover, these factors exacerbate health disparities in the most vulnerable populations, including the poor in urban and rural areas, immigrants, adults and juveniles re-entering life after prison, and the homeless.
Data paints a bleak picture of African Americans at risk from the moment their lives begin in the mother's womb. Health disparities are devastating urban and rural communities alike, burdening our families and friends. To be sure, racism and discrimination play a role in the health crisis that Blacks face. The Institute of Medicine issued a report entitled "Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare" documenting that minorities receive a lower quality of health care even when insurance status and incomes are considered.
Consider these statistics:
The infant mortality rate for Blacks is 13.5 per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.7 for Whites.
Age-adjusted death rates for cancer is 25.4 percent higher for Blacks than Whites.
3.2 million Blacks, or 13.3 percent over the age of 20, have diabetes and Blacks are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes as Whites.
Blacks are more likely to die of heart disease than any other racial or ethnic group.
African American men have the highest death rate of any racial or ethnic group.
Unfortunately, the millions spent examining health disparities have yielded few results. Only recently have researchers begun to understand that to improve the health of African Americans, their total environment must be considered.
From April 9 to11, the Community Voices Initiative at the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine will host an assembly of the nation's leaders in civil rights and health disparities to discuss the relationship between poor health and inequities in our society. The inaugural Freedom's Voice Conference at Morehouse School of Medicine hopes to plot a new direction in the fight against health disparities.
Participants from the nation's leading think-tanks, universities, government and health industry will participate in the panel discussions, as well as present case studies and interactive presentations. Further, after hosting a panel discussion to hear the voices of the victims of health disparities, there will be a session on the crucial next steps. Participants will begin to craft components for an action plan and implement the ideas that will ultimately benefit our communities.
Until the social determinants of health are identified and addressed, black men, women and children will continue suffering needlessly. This conference is a crucial step towards saving lives.
Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell, of Morehouse School of Medicine, is also director of Community Voices, a non-profit working to improve health services, and health-care access, for all Americans.