Health services and policy researchers have known for years that health disparities are real and pervasive. The accumulated findings from thousands of studies over the years show that health disparities are no accident. Each year, our Annual Research Meeting (ARM) track on disparities is in the top three for number of sessions and submissions – this year’s agenda has 218 papers/posters. Social and economic factors, such as access to education, housing, healthy food, and a steady income, often operating over generations, are known to have a far greater influence on health than access to affordable and equitable health care alone.
These social, economic, and environmental determinants of health disparities are the result of policies and practices that reflect and build on systematic discrimination and systemic racism. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most mainstream leadership structures in universities, independent research organizations, industry, foundations, and the public sector have embedded and perpetuated discrimination and are only recently looking for ways to address it.
Even though growing numbers of people in our field feel that these areas of bias and discrimination need to be addressed head on, they don’t know where to start or what to say or do, both as individuals and as members of the leadership of their organizations. At a time when an incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks triggers a national conversation about the return of “white-only spaces” from an earlier time in U.S. history, however, big ideas and small intentional steps are important for our field.
One place to start is being more willing to “cross over” to see the field from other people’s perspectives. In biology, crossing over means exchanging genetic material to create new and more diverse combinations of genes that are not found in either parent. In music, the term crossing over means appealing to more than one audience, often by performing in more than one style. Think Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Prince, and Beyonce. Or think about Anthony Bourdain, whose unique blend of travel, food, and cultural insights reached a global and very diverse audience.
In our field, crossing over means learning about other people’s lived experiences, getting outside of our disciplinary or subject matter comfort zone, and interacting with people who don’t look or think exactly like us. It can mean entering new spaces and experiencing different cultural realities where diversity and inclusion are mutually respected values and assets and where we can broaden our thinking and approach to research and policy.
In 2015, AcademyHealth released a report on The Future of Diversity and Inclusion in Health Services and Policy Research based on a convening of diverse experts from research, clinical, and policy settings. The participants recommended five areas of action for AcademyHealth that included (1) making a public organizational commitment to diversity; (2) communicating clearly about diversity and inclusion goals; (3) publicly reporting about progress toward those goals; (4) promoting best practices for diversity and inclusion for the current workforce; and (5) creating a more diverse workforce pipeline.
As a result of the 2015 report, AcademyHealth has begun to collect better data on the demographics of its members; engaged student chapters and diverse fellows and junior faculty in social and programmatic events; has held annual ARM breakout sessions to feature different aspects of workforce diversity; and has regularly reported to our Board of Directors on these and other activities to promote diversity and inclusion. Recent ARM and National Health Policy Conference plenary sessions have included frank discussions about disparities, diversity, equity, racism, and inclusion, and breakout sessions now feature more diverse groupings of expert presenters.
The Disparities and Health Equity track in this year’s ARM includes Sunday afternoon sessions on Methodological Challenges and Opportunities in Disparities research a poster session on Disparities and Health Equity, and a breakout session on Health and Healthcare Disparities Experienced by Four Diverse Disability Populations.
There is also an interactive breakout session on Building a Culture of Diversity: Approaches for Building a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce sponsored by the AcademyHealth Center on Diversity, Inclusion, and Minority Engagement (DIME).
Monday morning breakout sessions include Addressing Language Services and Immigrant Health, Examining Effects of Health Policies Related to Insurance, Competition, and Financial Protection on Disparities in Health Care, and Reducing Morbidity, Mortality, and Recidivism for Jail and Prison Re-Entry Patients: The Los Angeles County Whole Person Re-Entry Program.
Also on Monday in the late afternoon, a breakout session will address the shocking and tragic rise in maternal mortality for African American women: Lost Mothers: An Exploration of the Rising Disparity in Maternal Morbidity and Mortality in the U.S.
Tuesday morning features a breakout session on Policy Reforms for Vulnerable Populations and Impacts on Disparities and Challenges and Opportunities at the Intersection of Health Care and Social Needs.
In addition to attending sessions, we welcome you to attend an evening networking reception hosted by AcademyHealth’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Minority Engagement. Space is limited, so click here to learn more and register for the reception.
In coming weeks and months, AcademyHealth will be working with HealthBegins to broaden and deepen our commitment to diversity and health equity by discussing how to acknowledge the role of social determinants of health and increase awareness of systemic discrimination and bias. The first of our invitation-only, collaborative discussions will take place on Sunday morning from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm. Space is limited, so please register here.
To learn more about AcademyHealth’s diversity initiatives, events, and additional blog posts, click here.