Council launches campaign to end health disparities in the Southeast
When it comes to health, not all men … or women … are created and treated equally. The playing field can be unleveled by a number of factors – access, genetics, environment, culture, behavior, and lack of research in specific populations.
But the Southeastern Regional Health Equity Council (RHEC) hopes to show that when it comes to optimizing health, everyone has the opportunity to get in the game. The group, which convened its second annual meeting Aug. 28-29 in Atlanta, was founded a year earlier to address health inequities and the social conditions that lead to health disparities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The Southeastern RHEC is one of 10 regional councils that are part of the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities (NPA), which as the first national multi-sector community and partnership-driven effort on behalf of health equity.
“Our mission is to coordinate efforts across the region to achieve health equity through policy changes, effective programs and greater awareness,” said Pamela C. Hull, PhD, co-chair of the Southeastern RHEC.
“The invitation to form came from the federal Office of Minority Health,” she explained. However, Hull added, the council is a separate entity and is run independently with its own governance. She noted there were 25 founding members in 2011 with 10 additional members being added over the past year. Romero Stokes, MPA, who is the project director for the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Office of Health Equity, is the council’s other co-chair.
Hull, who is a an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said much of the past year had been devoted to building the group’s infrastructure to get up and running.
“We’re doing a needs and assets assessment right now,” she continued. “We’re conducting an environmental scan of existing initiatives and programs that are already in place locally and on a state level.” Simultaneously, the council is looking at needs throughout the region. “We’re gathering existing data on health and the social aspects of health to see where the big needs and gaps are.”
As the group identifies effective programs, they are evaluating the opportunities to leverage existing resources and to take local strategies and scale them up to a regional level. “What works in one place might not automatically work in another place, but we can look at ways to adapt it,” noted Hull.
She said the next key step, which begins in January, is to take the collected assets and needs data and use it to create a strategic plan. The action plan will be tailored to reflect regional priorities.
“Some things we know are more prevalent in the Southeast – obesity, diabetes, stroke and other heart disease and certain types of cancer,” noted Hull. She added these issues are problematic throughout the region. When looking at the area’s diverse ethnic and racial population, which includes a large African-American population and growing Hispanic community, Hull said, “We also see some inequalities in health outcomes across these more vulnerable groups.” In addition, she said, the Southeastern RHEC is also honing in on disparities by geographic location (urban vs. rural), income level, education and disability status.
To address health differences arising from ethnic, social, economic and environmental factors, the council called upon a diverse group of stakeholders with unique perspectives. In addition to leaders from the provider community and other traditional healthcare-focused organizations, the council includes members from academia, economic development, environmental groups, faith-based organizations, technology, grassroots groups and the business community.
Hull noted the council recognizes there are many local programs and research initiatives about which the group is currently unaware. “We definitely want to know about effective programs or strategies we could use region-wide,” she said.
Ultimately, Hull concluded, diminishing or eliminating health disparities not only helps vulnerable populations but benefits the entire region, as well.