How Racism Affects Health


This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference in Atlanta, GA. Every year, public health professionals from around the nation come together to meet at the biggest public health event of the year. The conference is held in a different location each year and comprises of a theme to which speakers center their work on. It was only fitting that this year the conference was held in Atlanta, "the public health capital of the world" and the theme for APHA 2017 was Climate Changes Health.

Attending APHA as an undergrad was a dream come true: I got to network with public health professionals (public health "famous people" as I explained to my family), meet other students who have similar passions and aspirations as me, attend an expo where grad schools presented themselves and researchers highlighted their work, and explore Atlanta which is now my dream city to live and work in. Perhaps the most beneficial experience was attending a presentation on Racism: Its Impact on You and Your Work. This presentation was led by Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, MPH, and PhD. Dr. Jones is a research director on social determinants of health and equity, a family physician, an epidemiologist, and the past president of APHA. Pictured below is Dr. Jones and you can read more about her accomplishments here. 

Photo courtesy of Twitter. 

Dr. Jones' work focuses on racism's impact on health and well-being. Racism is not a single definition but has three levels: institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized. Dr. Jones defines institutionalized racism as "differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities by race". Think of food deserts (areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods) which are typically predominant in low-income communities of color. That is an example of institutionalized racism because the people who reside in these communities are at a disadvantage: they have limited access to healthy foods and higher access to unhealthy foods (which many times includes fast food chains in those communities). Institutionalized racism results in health disparities among different groups of people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health disparities as "preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations".

Notice that the word preventable is used. Yes, differences in health among people can be prevented! So why don't we prevent disease you may ask? The issue is that these socially disadvantaged populations, i.e. communities of color, have been victims of a system that unfairly disadvantages them and advantages others. Think back to the food desert example. So why don't we make access to nutritious food equal among communities then? That is a concept called health equality, which gives everyone the same thing. Health equality is very different than health equity, which gives people different supports to make it possible for them to have the same opportunities. Health equity removes a systematic barrier. The graphic below is a great comparison between heath equality and health equity. 

Photo courtesy of AJE Forum. 

Health equity is a gold standard! If you really want to eradicate institutionalized racism, you need to promote health equity among disadvantaged populations. If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Jones and her research on racism and heath, check out a conversation with her and a paper she published

Photo and recipe courtesy of Hungry Happenings