Institute Tackling Local Race Health Disparities

June 7, 2002
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They know the problem.

Now they want to find out the cause and, more importantly, what to do about it.

Citing what one participating physician calls a “raging epidemic,” a new organization in Grand Rapids wants to break down the local disparities in health care between whites and African-Americans.

The ultimate goal of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute is to collaborate with health care providers to better serve and connect with a patient population that has an infant mortality rate twice that of whites, as well as higher rates of major illness.

“In spite of the significant medical advances in medical technology, there remains a raging epidemic of preventable illnesses, chronic diseases and preventative death among African Americans,” said Khan Nedd, M.D., an internal medicine physician and a board director of the institute and of Spectrum Health.

“This cause is a relevant and just one. This is a wonderful opportunity for community action,” he said.

Spectrum Health has provided $80,000 in seed money for the organization, which will set up in Grand Valley State University’s new Center for Health Professions now under construction downtown.

The African American Health Institute, he said, has no interest in becoming a care provider itself.

The entity’s intent, rather, is to research what causes the health disparities between African Americans and Caucasians, and to learn how to address them.

The institute wants to work with hospitals, physicians and universities training health professionals in the community to steer and adjust services as needed, as well as to influence public policy.

“This is a situation where we don’t have knowledge and we need to find it,” Nedd said. “We need to have people who influence health care and make health care policy understand the issue.”

Disparities in comparison with whites’ health care cross all economic and social lines among African Americans, from the wealthy and middle class to the poor.

So said Anthony King, director of ambulatory services at Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center and a board director for the institute. King is co-chair of the institute along with Paul Doyle, project manager of Spectrum Health’s Healthy Communities initiative.

Doyle says the causes of health disparities are unknown, although it’s his view that education, economics, cultural differences, access to care and insurance coverage — and even trust — are all potential factors that need examining.

“At this point, we won’t rule out anything,” Doyle said. “We will keep our flags and antennas wide open as we go forward.”

“We have a multiple array of things we can look at,” he said.

The roots for the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute were planted more than three years ago when the Grand Rapids Urban League formed its Health and Prevention Committee to examine local racial health disparities.

The committee’s work led to the submission of a request for funds to Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities for planning and development of the institute.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation last August provided further assistance with a $400,000 grant to develop ways to reduce disparities in health among races and increase access to care among African Americans.

Identifying the fundamental causes of health disparities will enable care providers to change the way they deliver care to the community, said John Mosely, Spectrum Health’s vice president of strategic and business development.

Efforts to identify what’s behind the problem have so far been unsuccessful, Mosely added.

“Until we can identify those root causes, we can’t make changes, we can’t make progress,” Mosely said.

Health statistics show that the infant mortality rate in Kent County from 1998 to 2000 was more than twice that for African Americans than whites: 16.5 per 1,000 live births, compared to 7.3 per 1,000 for whites.

Kent County Health Department data also show that African American women in 2000 were more likely to receive inadequate prenatal care and deliver children with low birth weight.

National data shows African American males have a shorter life expectancy than their white counterparts and higher rates of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

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