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Race a Key Issue in 2021 President’s Forum on Health Disparities

By Saba Mann | May 5, 2021

Keynote speaker Dr. Thomas LaVeist dispelled the common myths that fuel racial disparities in his presentation “From Exposure to Vaccination: The Role of Structural Racism in COVID Inequities” on Friday’s Health Disparities in the World of COVID-19 and Going Forward Forum.

Dr. LaVeist challenged the audience to envision a society without racial health disparities. He spoke frankly about the notion of race, explaining that it’s shaped by cultural and political constructs, and walked through different case study examples to speak about the various healthcare disparities.

Dr. LaVeist is a national expert on equity and health issues, Dean and Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Health Equity at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. He was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2013.

“Race is what we say is race is on the basis of decisions that are made within the culture, not decisions that are being made at the genomic level,” Dr. LaVeist said.

He argued that measuring race is not a biological process, rather it involves making an assumption based on a visual assessment.

“But then those of us who are in the health sciences, we try to use this construct, which is inherently social in its definition and the way it's actually measured, and then we try to overlay biological meaning to it,” Dr. LaVeist explained.

Despite disparities within all socioeconomic levels, Dr. LaVeist maintains they shouldn't matter as they are still a problem, and ultimately, there is an underlying race issue.

As co-chair of the Louisiana governor’s task force on COVID-19, he created a map to showcase socially vulnerable communities throughout the state, and it was overlaid with facilities that could be used to distribute the vaccine. His findings showed that there are clear cases where some communities are healthcare deserts, lacking adequate resources to distribute the vaccine.

“Segregation produces the disparities by creating different risk environments, and the fact that we don't account for these differences often leads us astray,” said Dr.LaVeist.

National statistics are a deceiving way of measuring disparities and forming conclusions on them he says, should be avoided.

When asked by Dr. Hayward Horton, a sociology professor at UAlbany, about how to ensure these issues stay prominent, Dr. LaVeist detailed the importance of people of color obtaining more positions in leadership and changing how structures are organized.

“Now it’s time for us to evolve beyond speaking truth to power, and putting ourselves in positions to be the one in power so that people can speak truth to us and then we get to decide where we want to allocate resources,” Dr. LaVeist said.

In deciding who gets to be a doctor and receiving that important position of privilege, he argues the need to make more relevant evaluations, which would result in a different healthcare workforce.

“Why do you use organic chemistry to weed out who gets to go to medical school, rather than using metrics that are predictive of success as a physician?” Dr. LaVeist said.

The forum’s panelists consisted of academics from UAlbany and other medical universities as well as other members from community and government organizations.

Simone Seward, a fellow in the Health Disparities Research Training Program at Upstate Medical University, noted the importance of interpersonal communication and social work in building trust with people.

Wilma Alvarado-Little, Associate Commissioner for NYS Department of Health, emphasized the need of having the community as a partner and being mindful when doing research.

“We need to get it together before we go to the communities,” Alvarado-Little says of governments and universities.

“And the only way to do that is transdisciplinary research, multi-institutional research, bringing people together, people who can work together, and can think together and bring the solutions to the table and ask for policy changes that will lead to the actual changes,” said Director of the Brooklyn Health Health Disparities Center, Dr. Moro Salifu, on eliminating health disparities.

The event was hosted by UAlbany’s Center for Elimination of Minority Health Disparities (CEMHD) and SUNY Upstate and Downstate Medical Universities, sponsored by a $10 million NIH grant that was awarded to UAlbany in 2016 to research health inequities in the northeast.

“[COVID-19] has also generated a new level of awareness of the institutionalized racism, discrimination, and poverty that are the root of health disparities,” President Havidán Rodríguez said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo charged UAlbany with leading New York State’s research into the disproportionate impact on communities of color. The effort, President Rodríguez says, consists of 36 faculty members branching out from a variety of departments within the university who are studying vaccine hesitancy, effects of urban geography, and the role of the black church in disseminating health information.

“This collaboration has enabled us to see the crises from multiple perspectives and to think deeply about the many factors that have contributed to this pandemic while we are still in the midst of it,” President Rodríguez said.


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