Health Panel

Knowledge in Action:

SPPD Student Associations Organize Health Equity Panel

By Blaise Nutter

Jackie Valenzuela Jackie Valenzuela, Director of Health Education Administration, L.A. County Department of Public Health
Photo by Tom Queally

In a collaborative student-led effort, leading voices in minority health advocacy in Los Angeles came together at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development this past spring semster for a panel discussion on “Inequities in Minority Health: Access, Quality and Outcomes.”

The panel, featuring representatives from the nonprofit, education and government sectors, covered a variety of pressing health care issues facing minority communities across the country.

Held in Ralph and Goldy Lewis Hall and co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress’ “Campus Progress” project, the event was organized by a number of SPPD’s student associations: the Association of Black Students in Policy, Planning, and Development; the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus; the Latino Association of Policy, Planning, and Development; and the Student Health Council.

Health Panel Anita Hong-Ha Lee, left, Program Director at PALS for Health, and Wenonah Valentine, Executive Director at the Pasadena Birthing Project
Photo by Tom Queally

With April designated as National Minority Health Month by the U.S. Health Department’s Office of Minority Health, the student groups coordinated the discussion to raise awareness of health disparities among minorities.

“We all were working on the issue in our own different ways, and we decided to come together and do it as a joint effort,” said Asian Pacific Islander Caucus co-chair Smita Satiani.

With each constituency choosing a speaker who offered a different emphasis, Association of Black Students president La Mikia Castillo said the event could help the audience connect the dots between various interrelated issues.

During her introduction, SPPD teaching associate professor LaVonna Blair Lewis, the panel’s moderator, said, “We lose a lot of lives early because of health disparities, and we spend a lot of money unnecessarily.”

Panelist Frankie Augustin, a health administration lecturer at California State University, Northridge’s College of Health and Human Development, said, “There is a shortage, period, in our health care work force.”

Augustin noted that this shortage is a serious problem across all populations; it is particularly acute when considering minority health care professionals.

She cited an Association of American Medical Colleges study to show how this lack of diversity led to barriers of care for minority patients, especially in the form of communication. She stressed that health care professionals must exhibit “cultural competence” to properly deal with an increasingly multilingual and minority population.

“It’s more than just verbal communication; it’s cultural communication,” she said.

Anita Hong-Ha Le, program director at PALS for Health – an organization that provides translation and training services as well as advocacy for language issues – also stressed the importance of effective communication across cultures.

“Studies have shown that every year in the U.S., 100,000 people die just from the language barriers of accessing care,” she said.

The problem is that language assistance is technically very complex, Hong-Ha Le explained, and this task frequently falls upon family members, friends, even complete strangers, despite that U.S. and California law requires language assistance be available to all patients.

Many health problems within minority communities, however, can be linked to birth issues. Wenonah Valentine, executive director at the Pasadena Birthing Project, which is dedicated to reducing infant mortality, said that one out of eight women nationwide has a pre-term birth, and the rate for African American women is two to four times higher.

“African American college grads have worse birth outcomes than white women who have dropped out of college,” Valentine said.

Valentine said she believes stress in pregnancy is one of the main causes and that African American women internalize this stress. She urged women to talk openly and not to isolate themselves.

The final speaker, Jackie Valenzuela, director of health education administration at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said there were communication problems within government as well and that the main reasons for ethnic health disparities were larger public problems, such as social inequity and discriminatory beliefs, rather than individual ones, like genetics.

Using statistics from the county’s service planning areas, Valenzuela demonstrated how areas with high poverty, low education and high minority populations also suffered from higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other preventable diseases.

Responding to audience questions, the panelists acknowledged the importance of alternative medicine, as well as the impact that advocacy can have on local officials with a simple phone call. The panelists urged collaboration with partners and to always have clear, tangible goals.