Health disparities in Boston focus of talk at HSPH Community Partnership Day

4 min read

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the city’s top health official, Barbara Ferrer, speaking at the Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH) 18th Annual Community Partnership Day, said efforts to end racial health disparities must go forward in the city even as the nation’s economy falters.

“These are very trying times for all of us,” said Menino, speaking at the Oct. 17 event, “Policy, Leadership and Health Disparities in Boston,” in Snyder Auditorium at HSPH. “But these times demand that we make elimination of health disparities a priority. The situation demands that we come together to take action. Eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities is a daunting issue, and it requires help from everybody in this room.”

The event was spearheaded by the School’s Division of Public Health Practice. James Ware, dean for academic affairs at HSPH, introduced the lecture. Howard Koh, head of the Division of Public Health Practice, served as moderator.

Menino vowed to continue his efforts on the matter but said addressing the disparities issue will require effort from all segments of the community, not just the city. “We need to hear your voices on this issue,” he told the audience, which included HSPH’s community partners, students, and staff. “I am continuing to make addressing the issue of health disparities a top priority of my administration. I encourage you all to get involved.”

Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, described the health disparities between whites and blacks in the city.

“In the city of Boston, this is a compelling issue,” she said. “It’s a life-and-death issue.”

According to the “The Health of Boston 2008” report, the estimated life expectancy in the city is highest for Boston’s Latino residents (81.8 years) followed by Boston’s white residents (78.7 years). African-American Boston residents have a lower life expectancy (73.9 years) than Boston residents overall. In Boston in 2006, the age-adjusted cancer mortality rate for African-Americans was 84.1 percent higher than the Asian age-adjusted cancer mortality rate, 48.3 percent higher than the Latino rate, 30.4 percent higher than the white rate, and 29.8 percent higher than the overall Boston age-adjusted cancer mortality rate. Between 2000 and 2006, diabetes mortality rates increased 19.4 percent for African Americans, declined 41 percent for Latinos, and remained nearly the same for whites in Boston.

Tough economic times may be at hand, said Ferrer, but that cannot be used as an excuse for ignoring the disparities issue.

“When times are tough, it is very easy to go back to business as usual and say we have to put this on the side now — the economy is tanking, and we have to prioritize,” Ferrer said. “And it does mean prioritizing, but it says so much about the mayor that at the top of the list remains the issue of eliminating these huge gaps on health outcomes.”

Menino’s administration convened a task force on the issue of health disparities that included representatives from academia, the health care industry, and Boston communities. In 2005, the task force developed a blueprint for addressing the problem. The plan focused on issues such as diversifying the health care work force, strengthening ties between health care institutions and communities, and looking at means for improving people’s lives in basic ways. Examples of ideas included making available more open space for children in which to play and encouraging farmers markets in communities so that residents can buy more fruits and vegetables, Menino said.

“We still have a ways to go, but we are beginning to make significant progress,” he said.

Ferrer vowed that efforts to end disparities will go on. Said Ferrer, “The root causes of health inequities are also the root causes of inequities in other areas that hurt our economy. So when you don’t have equal opportunity, when you don’t have equal access, whether it is to health-care services, to education, or to jobs, it has a bad effect on our whole economy and on all of our communities. So I can’t think of a better time to keep this issue front and center.”

After the event, an Agency Information Fair took place in the Kresge cafeteria. HSPH members were able to meet agency representatives from community organizations within the greater Boston area and learn about opportunities for internships and volunteer programs.