Minority health disparities: an all-American problem

Baby with stethoscopeThe poor health status of black Americans is a “scandal,” but one that’s existed for so long – since slavery – that “it has lost the power to shock anybody,” said Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., FACOFP, who spoke on campus Feb. 27 to help mark Black History Month.

The first African American woman to serve as dean of a U.S. medical school (the College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University), Ross-Lee is vice president for health sciences and medical affairs at the New York Institute of Technology and executive director of the National Osteopathic Center for Health Policy. She told a DMU audience that African Americans and other minorities have the poorest health status in all categories. “Minority health disparities are not a minority problem. It is a health system problem with overtones of cultural or racial bias,” she said. “It is an American problem.”

The solution, she explained, is fostering more diverse perspectives on tackling the issue. “It is my personal theory that the inclusion of minorities will expand the science of medicine to achieve health care parity for all Americans,” she said.

Ross-Lee’s life and career reflect that effort. The oldest of six children (including singer Diana Ross) who grew up in a poor Detroit inner-city neighborhood, she became a surrogate mother to her siblings at age 10 when their mother was hospital- ized with tuberculosis for two years. She held a number of jobs to work her way through school, eventually graduating from the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. The first osteopathic physician to participate in the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship, she has lectured, published and consulted widely on issues of primary care, medical education, minority and women’s health, and rural health care.

Ross-Lee emphasized the responsibility DMU students hold in improving the quality and access of health care for all people.

“There are no short-term solutions, no quick fixes, no silver bullets, no magic wand to wipe away minority health disparities,” she said. “Parity for vulnerable populations, including minorities, will be achieved when the value of eliminating disparities is appreciated and economically supported. That’s where the solutions lie.”

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