Dr. Alvin Poussaint remains positive that African Americans will improve their health. Through a combination of cultural ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding, doctors continue to treat African Americans differently than their White counterparts.
Nevertheless, Poussaint says African Americans need to take some responsibility for their own health problems.
The renowned psychiatrist, author and television consultant, speaks in Portland for the 18th annual Saward Lecture. The lecture will take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 24 at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Tickets are free and available by calling 503-335-2466 or by emailing [email protected].
Poussaint made headlines, along with Bill Cosby, for co-authoring the book "Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors" about the reasons Black people need to step up and take responsibility for the disparities that plague them. But he also says government and private institutions also share much of the blame.
"Many people don't understand they have biases," Poussaint told The Skanner. He said many doctors and nurses lacking the multi-cultural understanding needed to provide equal care to African Americans.
But he does see hope. In New Jersey, doctors are now required to take classes in cultural competency in order to practice medicine. Many medical schools are now teaching classes in cultural competency.
Part of the reason Poussaint is delivering the Saward Lecture is to commemorate the creation of an endowed health disparities chair at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. The new position is in honor of Mitch Greenlick, who has worked to provide health coverage to disadvantaged populations.
"We know there are significant differences among people in access to health care — in medical treatment, and in health outcomes depending on their gender, race or ethnicity, and socioeconomic status," said Mary L. Durham, PhD, vice president/research for Kaiser Permanente and director of the Center for Health Research, in a statement. "What we need to discover are effective ways to reduce or eliminate these health disparities."
That's just what Poussaint is also trying to do. Although he admits the road to eliminating health disparities will be a long and complicated one. Many other disparities will also need to be eliminated – law enforcement, education and economic disparities to name a few. But a long history of societal and institutional racism plays a role in making sure health disparities continue on.
When he traveled to Mississippi in 1965, the vast majority of hospitals were segregated, providing sub-par health care to Blacks.
"We had to actively agitate and protest to get hospitals to comply (with the 1964 Civil Rights Act)," he told The Skanner. "They were forced to do it."
But it wasn't just hospitals, the American Medical Association dragged its heels in allowing Black physicians to join the venerabl e organization.
While medical segregation came at the cost of proper care for African Americans, the area of mental health needs Black doctors for Black patients, according to Poussaint and many experts.
In Portland, the Avel Gordly Center for Healing opened this February, providing culturally appropriate mental health care. They can be reached at 503-494-4745.
Poussaint says a multicultural mental health center would be ideal. As African Americans see White doctors working alongside Black doctors, the dividing racial lines can begin to break down.
But even as the fears of mental health healing break down, many African Americans are still affected by poverty, lack of insurance and a health care system that mostly lacks coverage for mental health issues – even if you're insured to begin with.
"Nine million African Americans don't have health insurance," Poussaint said. "We have to be more demanding about health care in our communities."
In other words, start working to get government policies changed, he said.