Today’s guest blog post is by Erica Harp, Grassroots Advocacy Spring ’19 Intern
Each year during the month of April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and public health advocates join together to bring awareness to the health disparities that continue to persist for those of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. This year’s theme is Active and Healthy, which aims to highlight the many health benefits of incorporating regular exercise into one’s daily routine. However, for disadvantaged communities, it’s also important to recognize that there are barriers that prevent an individual from achieving an active and healthy lifestyle. Identifying what these barriers are, and attempting to eliminate them, is where NACHC and Community Health Centers play a critical role in combating minority health disparities by taking a holistic approach to health care.
So what are health disparities? According to the American Public Health Association, a health disparity refers to “a difference in health that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage.” Racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. have the most significant health disparities – whether this is related to availability of food, affordable housing, access to education, or social connections – and this is why health centers have made it their mission of ensuring everyone, especially marginalized communities, have access to affordable, quality health care. Health disparities are also costly and lead to growing economic costs to the U.S. health care system. In fact, a 2009 study by the National Urban League Policy Institute, reported that health disparities contribute an estimated $60 billion in excess medical costs and $22 billion in lost productivity to our health care system. Furthermore, these avoidable and excess costs are projected to increase to $126 billion in 2020 and $363 billion by 2050. To combat these rising costs, health centers are on the ground advancing health equity and ensuring everyone have can attain their highest level of health.
As shown in NACHC’s recent Chartbook, 63 percent of health center patients are of racial/ethnic minority groups and may experience barriers that prevent them from living a healthy life. That’s why several health centers around the country have adopted The Protocol for Responding to and Assessing Patients’ Assets, Risks, and Experiences (PRAPARE) to collect data on their patients’ social determinants of health. Health centers use the data to improve services and to connect patients to outside resources which may help address these conditions.
For example, Mary’s Center in Washington D.C. employs a social change model to help remedy the challenges patients face in their daily lives. Their nutrition department offers grocery store walk-throughs to equip patients with the knowledge and tools to better understand healthy eating [see NACHC’s previous blog post]. Mary’s Center has also developed a community partnership with Briya Public Charter School that offers literacy classes to parents and young children. When social determinants such as nutrition and education are tackled, patients are able to live healthier lives.
Another example of health centers addressing the social determinants is CentroMed in Texas. The health center established Centro Fitness, a recreational fitness center with cardio and strength training machines, group exercise classes, weight loss programs, and personal trainers. With two locations, Centro Fitness is able to serve communities who wouldn’t have sufficient access to exercise resources elsewhere. Additionally, Centro Med offers various nutrition and health education events and classes.
Addressing the social determinants of health is also part of a broader national conversation among health experts, including policy and industry professionals. At the National Minority Quality Forum’s Annual Summit, a panel of health experts entitled “Impact of the Social Determinants of Health in Building a Sustainable, Healthy Community” discussed avenues for addressing barriers associated with social determinants of health. Celeste A. James, Executive Director of Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States, observed that “clinical excellence is insufficient” and underscored that investing in housing, social services, small businesses, and education (to name a few) can also be effective in fostering the overall health and well-being of communities.
Ultimately, when our health systems work to address both social and medical needs, patients are able to live healthier, happier lives. Health centers are on the front lines to ensure that people have both social and medical needs met.