Addressing health disparities is among the top priorities of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said the agency’s director Elias Zerhouni at the second of three Harvard symposia on April 14.
The symposia were convened by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to involve high-ranking health officials from several countries.

“Health disparities research is something that truly we’re just at the beginning of understanding and promoting and stimulating,” said Zerhouni. “It will require an integrative approach.”

In addition to Zerhouni, the talk featured speakers representing Canada, India, and the Americas. Former HSPH Dean and Harvard Provost Harvey Fineberg, who now heads the Institute of Medicine, served as discussant for a subsequent panel discussion.

The meeting was a call to action, explained HSPH Dean Barry Bloom in his opening remarks. “The kind of leaders we have presented to you today are in a position – if we could be persuasive enough with both the analysis and the suggestion for improvements and interventions for action – to try to make a difference.”

The NIH has more than doubled its spending on health disparities research in the past few years, said Zerhouni. In 2000, the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) was established and now frames an official NIH strategic plan to address the issue. Part of the center’s mission is to eliminate health disparities altogether.

One major challenge in understanding the nature of health disparities is to go beyond simply describing the problem. To encourage more scientists to research health disparities, the NCMHD has a program that makes payments – up to $35,000 per year – on qualified educational loan debts for scientists who undertake basic, clinical, or behavioral research directly relevant to health disparities.