Overcoming Health Disparities a Major Public Health Challenge

Ana Diez Roux sees great disparities in public health based on factors such as income, education, social status, ethnicity, gender and the neighborhood where one lives. Eradicating these and other disparities is one of the major challenges facing public health practitioners this century.

Roux was the most recent scholar to deliver a Milbank Lecture as part of the school’s ongoing centennial celebration. Her talk, “Population Health and the Social Determinants of Health: Evidence and Future Directions,” addressed how disparities continue to influence health outcomes.

A distinguished university professor of epidemiology and dean of the Drexel University School of Public Health, Roux, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., is known for her research on the social determinants of population health and the study of how neighborhoods affect health. She said that social position is a powerful predictor of health and that researchers are now focused on determining how much variability in health social determinants explain.

Factors such as income inequalities, social capital, economic fluctuations and neighborhood environment all play an important role in an individual’s health. “There are complex causal chains,” she told the gathering in Winslow Auditorium on October 15. The key is to figure out how to intervene so those factors are less important in determining a patient’s health status. Society needs to “reduce the inequalities of class, race, ethnicity and gender” in order to “lower the risk for high risk patients across the board,” she said

Trace Kershaw, Ph.D., associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, introduced Roux. He said the “importance, rigor and impact of her work” cannot be overstated.

Roux told the gathering that there are multiple dimensions of social circumstance, including income, education and race/ethnicity, which contribute to disease and health and operate over the course of a lifetime. The chief public health objective, she said, needs to be reducing inequalities so that health disparities are lessened. Beyond that, she suggested thinking about research and action differently so that data is used in novel ways to change perceptions about the drivers of health.

George Howard, professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, will deliver the final Milbank lecture of 2015. Howard is scheduled to speak on December 3 at noon in Winslow Auditorium.

The seven-part Milbank Lecture Series was launched early this year and recognizes the school’s significant contribution to the understanding of public health as well as the Milbank Memorial Fund’s tradition of forward-looking public health initiatives.

The Fund is an endowed operating foundation that works to improve the health of populations by connecting leaders and decision makers with the best available evidence and experience. Founded in 1905, the fund engages in analysis, collaboration and communication on health policy issues.

This article was submitted by Denise Meyer on October 21, 2015.