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Racial Health Disparities Called Most Prevalent Civil Rights Issue of Decade

ARLINGTON – To narrow the health disparities between minorities and White populations battling diabetes, HIV, prostate cancer and other diseases, the country must develop models of universal health care systems, train doctors to be culturally competent and extend access to high-quality health care to low-income and minority communities, said Dr. Chidi Achebe, president and CEO of Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, during a workshop at the 59th annual American Medical Student Association national convention.


Medical students from across the country and abroad huddled into a small conference room to discuss what organizers called the most prevalent civil rights issue of the decade – the stark health disparities that exist between minority and White populations.


Deluging his audience with familiar statistics, Achebe, son of famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, reminded students that the life expectancy for racial minorities was shorter than that of their White counterparts, although the gap between Whites and Blacks in the United States has narrowed over the last decade, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


The life expectancy of Black men, for instance, is 60 years – the shortest among any group – while White men usually live about six years longer than Black men. 


“A Black male in Cuba can expect to live longer than a Black male living here,” Achebe said.


Focusing mainly on African-American populations and their White counterparts to illustrate disparities, Achebe noted that African-American males have the highest prevalence of prostate cancer in the world. Black men are almost twice as likely to develop prostate cancer as White men. Black males are also five times more likely than Whites to die of HIV. And obesity occurs at a much higher rate in minority populations, particularly among Blacks and Latinos.    


Achebe told the future physicians that narrowing disparities is not just about medicine or personal skill. It is understanding the role political, social, economic and cultural factors play in a community’s ability to access health care, Achebe said.


Achebe, whose organization serves the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Matapan, meets regularly with local government officials to advocate for the resources his community needs – not just in terms of health care but in terms of education and employment and housing.


All of those things, said Achebe, are indirectly related to health care access.


Achebe also noted he is constantly asking government officials for “more open space for our children to play.”


“We need more gyms and YMCAs,” Achebe said. “If you go to inner cities across this country, you will find that, on almost every single street, there is a liquor store and a fast food restaurant. When I was at Harvard, in Cambridge, we had an open market on Saturdays for vegetables – fresh carrots and lettuce cheaply.”


Achebe added, “In Dorchester [a predominately Black neighborhood of Boston], you can get a Happy Meal from McDonald’s for $1.99.”


Stephanie Price, a first-year medical student at Loyola University in Chicago, was eager to attend the workshop. “Loyola does not do a fantastic job of addressing cultural competence and health disparities,” she said. “I am working with other students to get these health disparities integrated in the curriculum.”


In terms of addressing the seemingly never-ending health disparities, Price said, “My response is to take action. We cannot be stifled by the daunting statistics.”


Achebe noted that physicians do not have to be Black, Hispanic or Asian to address disparities.


“Most of the people who work in my community health center happen to be Anglos. The chief of [gynecology] is one of the most culturally competent doctors I know,” Achebe said.

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