National Minority Health Month takes place throughout April. The focus is to raise awareness about the health disparities that still persist among racial and ethnic minorities. This year’s theme, “Prevention is Power: Taking Action for Health Equity” falls squarely in the purview of Community Health Centers. Why? Because prevention is what they do for everyone regardless of who they are or where they are from. There has been some progress in addressing health disparities, notes a press release from the Office of Minority Health. For instance, the gap in life expectancy between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites is now the narrowest it has been since these statistics have been tracked. And seasonal flu vaccination coverage for children has tripled over the past four years. Let’s not also discount the work of health centers in reducing low birth weights and infant mortality. Also 90 percent of Hispanic and African American health center patients with hypertension report that their blood pressure is under control, according to a NACHC fact sheet.
So how do health centers achieve those results? They tackle community health with approaches that make sense for the population they serve. Health centers bring a whole health approach to prevention. That means targeting the social determinants of health; that is to say, the environmental factors that may cause it. The health of an individual and community does not depend on the power of medicine alone, notes a NACHC report on the social determinants of health (“Powering Healthy Communities”) . In fact, poor health can be caused by many factors that occur outside the walls of a medical facility, such as housing, poverty, nutrition, education and family stability. For this reason, health centers offer comprehensive, holistic approaches to health that not only reduce the disease burden, but also foster opportunities for families and communities to live safer and healthier lives. If the patient population suffers from a high rate of diabetes, for example, the health center will not just ensure early diagnosis and treatment, but go beyond the walls of traditional medicine to look at the possible causes.
Many health centers offer diabetes education classes, nutrition counseling and even cooking classes so patients learn to eat healthy. Some even go a step further to establish healthier food options. Lowell Community Health Center in northern Massachusetts is spearheading a “Mass in Motion Healthy Markets” to work with local convenience store owners to make healthy food and drink options available and easier for customers. Each market agrees to sell high quality fruits and vegetables, stock whole grain products and healthy snacks for kids. Open Door Family Medical Centers in Ossining, NY not only hosts regular diabetes education groups, but also Zumba Gold classes, followed by a light meal and presentations. Petaluma Health Center in California hosts a year round Farmer’s Market.
These are just a few examples of how health centers go beyond the traditional approach of other providers. They have the commitment, experience, and tools necessary to respond to community problems. Health centers are the largest source of primary and preventive care for the nation’s underserved – all of whom are at risk for poor health outcomes and experience acute health disparities.
Health centers’ work is far from finished. There are still some challenges that remain. Minorities are still more likely than non-Hispanic whites to suffer from chronic conditions and, sadly, many of them are preventable. But thankfully, the Affordable Care Act has expanded the reach of health centers so that more people and communities in need can have access to affordable, quality care and stay healthy. With better access to preventive care, health equity is possible.