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Combating health disparities in Detroit

Investing in the people in these underserved communities

 Upon graduating from college in 2006 I accepted an internship at the Wayne State University Center for Urban and African American Health, a $5.9 million dollar National Institutes of Health-funded research center to study health disparities. Health disparities are the gaps created by unequal access to and differences in health care and are evidenced by disproportionate burdens of disease and negative health outcomes for the affected group.

The data related to Detroit's economic and educational disparities is staggering. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2007-2011, 14.3 percent of the population in the U.S. was living below the poverty level, compared to 22.7 percent of residents in Wayne County and 36.2 percent of Detroit residents.

Among individuals 25 and older, 77.1 percent of Detroiters were high school graduates and only 12.2 are percent college graduates, compared to 88.4 percent and 25.3 percent in the state and 85.4 percent and 28.2 percent in the U.S. respectively.

The infant mortality rate is a common indicator to measure the overall health of a particular community or area. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the 2010 infant mortality rate in Michigan per 1,000 live births was 7.1 as compared to 6.5 in non-Detroit Wayne County and 13.5 in Detroit, more than twice the national average of 6.14.

There are positive correlations between a lack of education and income and disease burden.

My experience working with the underserved has elucidated aspects of health disparities that may be missed working with large data sets: The importance of identifying specific burdens to care and wellness on an individual level in Detroit.

I have discovered, through countless conversations with patients in the community, that the biggest barrier to eliminating health disparities in Detroit is a lack of infrastructure to understand, process and address the components of a person's situation that can be helped.

A certain level of trust must accompany this infrastructure. People will not allow you to care for them until they know you care about them.

As simple as it appears, I have found the most effective way to solve health disparities on a tangible level is to figure out what people need and point them toward it. This could be an emergency dental clinic, a free transportation service, a prescription assistance program, a substance abuse treatment program, teaching someone how to read a food label or pointing him to a nearby church that doubles as a food pantry on Mondays.

The key to addressing these issues is listening to and connecting with individuals in need, while armed with knowledge of resources that can help. Health and wellness includes access to social support, adequate housing, environmental safety, recreation, stress reduction, mental health, nutrition and a sense of self purpose, all of which improve health outcomes.

We must invest in the people in these underserved communities and listen closely to their stories. The most valuable gift we can give a person is our time.

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