April has been designated as National Minority Health Month, a cause that is dear to my heart and an issue we take seriously at CIRM. That’s one of the reasons we created the Bridges to Stem Cell Research program, to create a pipeline program for students that would increase racial and ethnic diversity in the public health and biomedical sciences.
I was elected to the California Legislature in 1974, at the age of 28, arguing for better health care for my East Los Angeles District. In 1978, I assumed the Chairmanship of the Assembly Health Committee and introduced legislation to help create a single payer plan for California. It is now 2012 and we are still arguing about accessible health care for all Californians and the disparities which I debated in 1974 still exist today!
Differences in health outcomes have always been linked to health disparities within social, economic and environmental groups. When I worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers to improve conditions for migrant farmers in the 1970s, pesticide poisonings were routinely dismissed as “flu symptoms”. It was only when trained physicians linked those symptoms to the use of toxic pesticides that tighter oversight of spraying was called for.
We know that race and ethnicity, or other characteristics such as gender or sexual orientation that have historically been linked to discrimination can influence health status.
A 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine -"Unequal Treatment Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care" - concluded that it was the lack of insurance which propelled health care inequities, more than demographic or economic barriers. The study also stated that racial and ethnic minorities are significantly less likely than the rest of the population to have health insurance. According to the report these minorities make up around 30 percent of the US population yet make up more than 50 percent of the uninsured. Primary care physicians are also lacking in racial and ethnic communities where these children are less likely than non-Hispanic white children to have access to a primary doctor.
In addition the report found that African American children have higher hospitalization rates from influenza and are twice as likely to be hospitalized and more than four times as likely to die from asthma as non-Hispanic white children. The health care work force is also limited in its representation of people of color in their ranks. This also leads to disparities.
We know that the Affordable Care Act will provide insurance coverage to more than 30 million people but now that is facing an uncertain future. My dear friend Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Governor of Kansas, has developed an action plan "A nation free of disparities in health and health care" to be implemented through goals.
- Transform health care by reducing disparities in health insurance coverage and access to care.
- Strengthen the nation's health and human infrastructure and workforce by identifying racial and ethnic health disparities so that these individuals can communicate properly with their health care providers. Utilize Promotoras, who provide health education and support to their communities. Start programs to increase diversity in health care and science.
- Advance health and safety by increasing availability of community-based programs through outreach and education.
- Advance scientific knowledge and innovation by increasing the availability and quality of data collected and reported on racial and ethnic minority populations by implementing a multifaceted health disparities data collection strategy across the agency.
- Increase efficiency, transparency and accountability of HHS programs through streamlining grant administration for health disparities funding.
I also hope that the diverse students receiving stem cell research training through the Bridges program will help bring a greater focus on minority health issues to the research community. These outstanding students will be a key part of fulfilling those five goals that will help bring us closer to becoming a nation free of health disparities.
CIRM Bridges: Training the Next Generation of Stem Cell Scientists