During the past semester, I have had the distinct pleasure of
teaching an upper-level undergraduate course in health
communication. A few weeks ago we completed a unit on communication
and health disparities. As part of this unit, I invited Dr. Brian
Rivers (an Assistant Research Faculty Member in the Department of
Health Outcomes & Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center) to perform
a guest lecture during our class session. For nearly an hour, Dr.
Rivers presented information related to health disparities across a
wide range of health measures, including access to health
insurance; rates of infant mortality; life expectancy; end-of-life
care; and the prevalence of specific diseases such as diabetes,
hypertension, and HIV/AIDs. He also spoke about his own work
related to prostate cancer screening and health disparities (see http://www.insidemoffitt.com/Doctor-Rivers-Prostate-Cancer-Health-Disparities-Video.htm).
As the presentation came to a close, Dr. Rivers clicked to his
final slide, smoothed his nave blue tie, and stepped to the front
of the lectern. He clasped his hands together and took a deep
breath. "More than anything, I hope this presentation has allowed
you to understand that although the overall health of our nation
has improved over the past several decades, inequities in health
and health care continue to persist among racial and ethnic
minorities. I also hope it inspires you consider how you might work
to address these inequalities in your own unique ways."
As was the custom following guest lectures in our class, I asked
the students to respond to the presentation. As I moved to the
front of the class, I noticed one student eagerly waving her hand
in the hand. "Go ahead," I said, gesturing toward her.
"These readings were difficult to get through this week. I had
no idea that there were such extreme differences in health
experiences of people here in the United States. It's even more
troubling that when I mentioned it to my family and friends, they
seemed just as surprised as I was."
As she finished, another student's hand shot into the air. "I
agree. I mean it seems like you never hear about this kind of
stuff," he said, shaking his head. "How are we supposed to do
anything health disparities if people don't even know they
The students in my class were not alone in being unaware of the
pervasive health disparities in the United States. The landmark
Institute of Medicine (2003) report, Unequal Treatment: Confronting
Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care suggested that efforts
were needed to increase awareness about racial and ethnic health
disparities. A recent study by Benz, Espinosa, Welsh, and Fontes
(2011) suggests that awareness of health disparities is still
lacking. The study reported that only 59 percent of Americans in
2010 were aware of racial and ethnic health disparities. This is
alarming when one considers that increasing awareness is "a
necessary first step toward changing behavior and compelling
action" aimed at eliminating health disparities (p. 1860).
Consistent with the reasoning that increased awareness of health
disparities may promote increased action, I was amazed how learning
about heath disparities galvanized many of the students in my
health communication course. Nearly half of the students decided to
examine a health disparity for their final course project (one has
discussed continuing the projects for an Honor's Thesis). Other
students have started working with various student organizations to
begin planning an on-campus event to raise awareness about health
disparities. Finally, several students have simply committed to
telling their friends and family about this important issue.
The recognition of the magnitude of health inequities in the
United States has made addressing these disparities a significant
public health priority among researchers, health care providers,
policymakers, and government agencies (Thomas, Quinn, Butler,
Fryer, & Garza, 2011). Despite these efforts, an unequal burden
of illness, death, and lack of access to quality health services
continues to fall on racial and ethnic minorities. Increasing
awareness is not sufficient on its own to address all of the
complex factors that contribute to health disparities (Benz et al.,
2011). It does, however, represent an important first step toward
achieving health equity. Moving forward, I hope we can all commit
to continue spreading the word about health disparities.
For more information:
- Benz, J., Espinosa, O., Welsh, V., & Fontes, A.. (2011).
Awareness Of Racial And Ethnic Health Disparities Has Improved Only
Modestly Over A Decade. Health Affairs, 30(10), 1860-1867.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). CDC health
disparities & inequalities report. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/other/su6001.pdf
- Institute of Medicine (2003). Unequal treatment: Confronting
racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare. Washington D. C.: The
National Academic Press.
- Thomas, S. B., Quinn, S. C., Butler, J., Fryer, C. S., &
Garza, M. A. (2011). Toward a fourth generation of disparities
research to achieve health equity. Annual Review of Public Health,
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow
University of South Florida