Honor MLK’s dream for Black health equity

By Julie Jordan
Published January 18, 2019

Black men and women make up one third of Georgia’s population, and they face unique challenges when it comes to health. African American individuals face more barriers in access to healthcare. They are also more likely to suffer from certain health conditions at a younger age that may cause earlier death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that all Americans should have equal opportunities to pursue a healthy lifestyle, known as health equity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a good time to remember and act on the equality, including health equality, King dreamed of in his famous “I Have a Dream [pdf]” speech. In his speech, King addressed Georgians directly saying, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  

How can Georgians join the table of brotherhood of which King dreamed while health disparities for African Americans persist?

The first step is to know some of the disparities as reported by the CDC:

  • African Americans ages 18-49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites.
  • African Americans ages 35-64 years are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites.
  • African Americans are more likely to die at early ages from all causes than whites.

Some of the social determinants, or conditions in environments in which people live, work, play and age that affect health, functioning and quality-of-life, that contribute to this are unemployment, poverty and unaffordable healthcare. These are some of the factors which make it difficult for African Americans to receive the same level of health care as other Americans.

Another example of how social determinants effect black health equity can be seen in mental health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, racial and ethnic minority populations often experience poor social and economic circumstances that can affect mental health, including higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, community and historical trauma, and disproportionate over-representation in criminal justice systems.  

Furthermore, one in five American kids is overweight or obese, and the rates are higher among African American and Latino children. This is also due to social detriments such as food desserts where lack of resources hinder an ability to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.   

Within the research and clinical realms of health equity, there is a shortage of black physicians and lack of black representation in medical research. This creates an inability to customize care when patients have not been included in research that informs treatment in the U.S.

Come to the table of brotherhood of which King dreamed by evaluating your role in creating health equity for African Americans and acting. Here are some examples provided by the CDC:

Public health professionals can:

  • Use proven programs to reduce disparities and barriers to create opportunities for health.
  • Work with other sectors, such as faith and community organizations, education, business, transportation, and housing, to create social and economic conditions that promote health starting in childhood.
  • Link more people to doctors, nurses, or community health centers to encourage regular and follow-up medical visits.
  • Develop and provide trainings for healthcare professionals to understand cultural differences in how patients interact with providers and the healthcare system.

Community organizations can:

  • Train community health workers in underserved communities to educate and link people to free or low-cost services.
  • Conduct effective health promotion programs in community, work, school, and home settings.
  • Work across sectors to connect people with services that impact health, such as transportation and housing.
  • Help people go see their doctor, take all medications as prescribed, and get to follow-up appointments.

Healthcare providers can:

  • Work with communities and healthcare professional organizations to eliminate cultural barriers to care.
  • Connect patients with community resources that can help people remember to take their medicine as prescribed, get prescription refills on time, and get to follow-up visits.
  • Learn about social and economic conditions that may put some patients at higher risk than others for having a health problem.
  • Collaborate with primary care physicians to create a comprehensive and coordinated approach to patient care.
  • Promote a trusting relationship by encouraging patients to ask questions.

The Federal government is:

  • Collecting data to monitor and track health and conditions that may affect health, such as poverty and high school graduation rates, through Healthy People 2020. http://bit.ly/2oDhWV4
  • Supporting partnerships between scientific researchers and community members to address diseases and conditions that affect some populations more than others.
  • Addressing heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases, which disproportionately affect African Americans, by implementing national initiatives such as Million Hearts®. http://bit.ly/2p0Ux0N
  • Supporting actions to create healthy food environments and increase physical activity in underserved communities.