Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan addressed health disparities during a visit to Winston-Salem State University last week.
“We have a dichotomy in our country in our health system, because we have some significant strengths in our country … but with those strengths, we have problems,” Sullivan said, noting that healthcare costs more in America than anywhere else in the world. “…We have a strong scientific system, we have a strong educational system, but we have a poor distribution system.”
Sullivan, the founding dean and president emeritus of Morehouse School of Medicine, served as keynote speaker for a day long conference, “Moving from Health Disparities to Health Equity: The Search for Solutions,” on April 18. Sponsored by the WSSU School of Health Sciences, the conference drew nearly 300 attendees.
“We need to find new, innovative ways to reach minority populations because traditional avenues do not
work,” conference organizer Kineka Hull, director of Academic Services for the School of Health Sciences, said of the conference’s mission. “…The School of Health Sciences is devoted to ensuring that we have a happy, healthy, productive workforce and providing a positive impact on health care nationally, locally and internationally.”
Sullivan, chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions, said addressing health disparities is a complex issue that will require adjustments on the part of both patients and healthcare providers in order to be eradicated.
“The greatest advances in the 21st Century will occur if we have a more health literate population that understands human biology and the things that they can do and must do to improve their health,” he said. “We (physicians) must be partners with our patients in improving our health system.”
African Americans are still underrepresented in the number of med school graduates, and some areas of medicine, such as dentistry, see even greater disparities, which can translate to issues in effective delivery of care in minority populations, according to Sullivan. Increasing the diversity and cultural competence of healthcare providers is an important piece of the puzzle of health disparities, he said.
“The healthcare professions are science-based professions, but they’re practiced in a social setting, meaning you have to be an effective communicator, you have to be able to develop understanding and trust with a patient,” he noted. “An effective healthcare professional is one who is scientifically strong and also culturally competent.”
Sullivan said the inefficiencies of America’s healthcare system could lead to its downfall as a superpower.
“It is worth the investment, because a healthy population is a population that is working, that continues to keep our country first around the world,” he said of improving the delivery of health services to American citizens. “If we fail to do that … then ultimately, we will fall behind.”
Dr. Arlene Lester, one of Sullivan’s former protégés, spoke at the start of the conference, which included lectures and panel discussions. In her role as the regional minority health consultant for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Lester facilitates policies and activities designed to eliminate health disparities in her southeastern region. The Meharry Medical College alumna told the audience that health disparities must be viewed under the broader scope of inequity. Other social factors also play an important role, she said, and must be considered in order for health disparities to be fully understood.
“When we talk about health equity, you’ve got to go a little farther upstream – you’ve got to talk about education equality, all in the same way,” she said, noting that those without a high school diploma are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have access to healthcare as a result. “…The best economic stimulus package is a high school diploma.”
The healthcare field has come a long way from where it was when Sullivan started out in 1954, bound for med school in the North because southern institutions would not admit him, but the grandfather of two said it still has a long way to go.
“The revolution is not complete,” he declared. “It’s up to you and me to complete that revolution.”