Based on new evidence that minorities and the poor are less likely than others to undergo cancer screening or receive other medical services, the University of Maryland School of Medicine has established a Center for Health Disparities to even the playing field.
The center will coordinate patient care, research, education and outreach efforts to promote health care in urban and rural communities that include racial minorities and low-income whites.
Funded with grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund, the center will target cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, glaucoma and other problems that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
The center will encourage people to see their doctors and receive periodic screenings for treatable ailments that often are fatal when ignored, such as heart disease and breast and prostate cancer.
In a telephone survey of 5,000 homes between 2001 and 2003, university-sponsored researchers found 72 percent of adults had never been screened for oral cancer.
Almost half of those over 50 had never been tested for colon cancer; 12 percent of adults had not seen a doctor at least once in the past year because of the expense.
Need to improve
The figures show Maryland is doing "a fairly good job" of ensuring health care access, said Dr. Claudia R. Baquet, an associate dean at the medical school and director of the new center.
But she said the survey also shows room for improvement.
"Now that we know the behaviors that we need to target, we can begin making the long-lasting changes we need to make in many of the state's communities," she said.
Baquet said the center will operate as an umbrella agency for a number of programs. The center will be funded with a $4.7 million NIH grant to be spent over four years and a $2.8 million annual grant in state tobacco restitution money.
The tobacco grant might vary from year to year, said Dr. Donald E. Wilson, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Health officials have been concerned for years about access to health care for racial minorities and the poor. A report by the National Institute of Health's Institute of Medicine in 2002 found that nationally there are often wide differences in quality and types of services provided to blacks and whites - sometimes when they seek treatment for the same symptoms.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Morgan State University set up the Morgan-Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions two years ago. The center coordinates research and a number of outreach efforts.
Fighting the myths
Wilson said addressing the problem also will require combating long-held myths.
When he was in medical school in the 1960s, Wilson said, he was taught that blacks with high blood pressure sometimes did not require treatment because it was so common. Physicians now know that's wrong, he said, but such concepts have become commonly accepted beliefs.
"There are people my age or maybe 10 or 15 years younger, who probably grew up with that same kind of teaching," Wilson said.
A lot of people have doctors but don't see them often enough.
"The issue isn't a lack of getting health care. It's a lack of understanding when you need health care," Wilson said.
Baquet told reporters yesterday that the center will coordinate outreach counselors who will work with churches, clinics and health departments to promote the need for healthier lifestyles and checkups.
One man's story
The benefits of outreach efforts were apparent at a news briefing yesterday.
"I can tell you, these efforts are important and worthwhile," said the Rev. George F. DeFord, a minister at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Indian Head, Charles County.
DeFord, 61, said he learned about the importance of having a prostate exam at a lecture sponsored by Maryland's medical school outreach program in 2001. He began having periodic checkups and had a cancerous prostate removed in June. He is now cancer-free and swims almost two miles a day.