February 1, 2008
Week of events at the MGH focuses on disparities

Last month, the MGH hosted a series of events to promote awareness about racial and ethnic health care disparities. The debut of the Disparities Solutions Center (DSC)/Multicultural Affairs Office (MAO) Film Series took place Jan. 17 in the Haber Conference Room with a screening of "Miss Evers'Boys," a film based on the story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which treatment was withheld from 400 African-American men with syphilis between 1932 and 1972. A discussion with two noted medical historians, Linda Clayton, MD, MPH, and W. Michael Byrd, MD, MPH, both instructors at the Harvard School of Public Health, followed the film. "Scientific racism had existed for thousands of years," said Byrd. "Tuskegee represented the tip of the iceberg." Alex Green, MD, MPH, senior faculty member at the DSC, acknowledged that some minority patients still harbor mistrust toward the health care system as a result of the Tuskegee study and encouraged physicians to acknowledge this possibility and explore such issues forthrightly with their patients.

disparities groupThe next event took place Jan. 23 in the O'Keeffe Auditorium, with the MGH's fourth annual disparities forum, "New Orleans — Past, Present, Future." Donald Erwin, MD, and Mary Abell, MD, both of the St. Thomas Community Health Center in New Orleans, and Ronald Chisom, a lifelong New Orleans resident and community activist, spoke about the need for culturally competent health care in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana historically has ranked lowest in the country for public health; after the devastation, conditions in New Orleans worsened as Charity Hospital remained closed and residents fled the city. Joseph Betancourt, MD, MPH, director of the DSC, encouraged the audience to interpret the discussion as a call to action rather than an academic inquiry. The event was sponsored by the MGH Committee on Racial and Ethnic Disparities, which Betancourt co-chairs with Joan Quinlan, director of the Community Benefit Program. Co-sponsors of the event included the DSC, the MGH Community Benefit Program and the MAO.

From left, Green, Betancourt, Clayton and Byrd

The DSC hosted its Keeping Current: Racial and Ethnic Disparities seminar series the following day in the Trustees Room. Joel Weissman, PhD, senior scientist at the MGH Institute for Health Policy, and Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, VA Boston Healthcare System and BWH physician, shared data indicating that the country's worst-performing hospitals also treated the highest percentages of minority patients. Jha also pointed to a study showing that 22 percent of primary care physicians treated 88 percent of elderly African-American patients and that these physicians were less likely to be board-certified. He concluded by asserting that reducing health care disparities requires a mix of systemwide quality improvement efforts as well as disparities-specific interventions and encouraged patients to become more involved in their own care.

For more information about the DSC, access www.mghdisparitiessolutions.org.

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