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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 exist?"

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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, 32(1), 399-416.

Patrick Dillon
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow
University of South Florida

Written by CCRC at 12:56

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