Oct. 6, 2006 — According to research scientist and author Thomas LaVeist, the health care system has little impact on the average person. Instead, LaVeist told attendees during a two-day health conference at Palms Court Harborview: "It's about where a person goes, what they do and what they are exposed to that has an effect."
The keynote speaker during the conference — entitled "Cultural Diversity and Health Disparities in the Virgin Islands: Challenges for the Health Care System" — LaVeist is currently a professor of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
According to his website, LaVeist studies "the major health care gaps in America, the trends causing them and the problems they create."
LaVeist argues that social and economic factors contribute to the emergence of health disparities in minorities — i.e., differences in health statistics, such as infant mortality rates — compared to society as a whole.
A person's income level and education also play a role, he said. To illustrate this point, LaVeist showed the audience a montage of celebrity icons, who died from either diseases (such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke) or homicide.
World-famous rappers Tupac Shakur and "Biggy Smalls" were among the faces shown, along with actor Gregory Hines and singers Barry White and Luther Vandross.
"The wealth of these celebrities did not shield them from health disparities," he said. "They had access to the best health care on the planet."
LaVeist highlighted poverty, racism, limited access to medical resources (such as pharmaceuticals), a lack of education and stress as some of the causes of health care disparities in minorities.
He added that a mistrust of the nation's health care system is also a factor –especially for minorities immigrating to America.
"Issues such as communication — such as non-English speaking individuals not being able to talk about their problems — and limited access to health care for minorities are things we have to begin to think about," LaVeist said. "Inequality is a huge problem."
To close the gap between minorities and the rest of the population, LaVeist suggested that communities look at distributing wealth equally between the various ethnic groups, creating jobs and providing better access to educational opportunities.
Health care providers also have a role to play in educating society, he said. LaVeist suggested that health care providers begin circulating information on various health disparities and diseases, including statistics on what populations are most affected by certain ailments, such as diabetes or hypertension.
Sponsored by UVI's Caribbean Export Center for Research and Education in Health Disparities, the conference also allowed a group of nearly 200 health care professionals and community members to participate in discussions about the evolution of the health care system in the Virgin Islands, experiences within the local health care system and experiences with cultural diversity and health care disparities.
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