A grass-roots approach to black health


Politicians do it all the time: target churches to reach African-Americans. But instead of wooing voters, health care advocates hope to tap into the power of black clergy to educate blacks on health problems gripping their communities.

St. Agnes HealthCare and the foundation of former Orioles star and cancer survivor Eric Davis announced yesterday that they have teamed up on a three-year program to educate ministers on diseases that disproportionately affect blacks.

"We are going directly to the leaders," said Angela Hunt, executive director of the Eric Davis Foundation, a nonprofit group born after the Oriole outfielder's colorectal cancer was diagnosed in 1997. "Who reaches the masses of African-Americans on a weekly basis? Pastors. When our pastor says do something, we do it."

The program was launched yesterday at St. Agnes in Southwest Baltimore with an event that included a discussion from medical professionals on cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and offered free health screenings for pastors.

About 70 Baltimore churches have signed on to the three-pronged program.

First, the foundation will educate ministers, the gatekeepers of many black communities, on the benefits of preventive medicine and healthful living. Second, the foundation will offer cultural training for medical professionals to break down the bias, sometimes unconscious, that exists in health care.

And finally, organizers want to join with community health workers to educate beyond faith communities.

One program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development trains Baltimore public housing residents to combat heart disease. Residents organize exercise groups, teach one another how to cook with healthful ingredients and nudge neighbors to get regular checkups.

"Programs like this help inform the policymakers about the need to support healthy lifestyles," said Carol Bryant Payne, an expert in community health for HUD.

Among the alarming statistics on health disparities: African-Americans are more likely to develop cancer and have the highest cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group. And the 2.8 million African-Americans with diabetes are four times more likely than diabetic whites to experience kidney failure.

The reasons for the gap are many, from diet to the cost of health insurance to cultural nuances that doctors might overlook.

"The thing that is a travesty is that studies prove that, irrespective of if you have insurance, if you come to the ER you are less likely to be accurately diagnosed and followed up for care than someone who is just like you but is not African-American," said Dr. Carlos Ince, a cardiologist at St. Agnes who has worked with a cardiac community outreach program since 1991.

Ince's reference was to a 2002 report from the Institute of Medicine, which found that minorities tend to receive inferior health care to whites even when they have similar health insurance and income.

Locally, academics have tried to confront the problem. The University of Maryland School of Medicine launched a Center for Health Disparities last summer. And two years ago, Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health and Morgan State University created the Morgan-Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions.

But more work is needed, advocates said yesterday.

"Everybody says they are addressing African-American health disparities, but nothing is happening," said the Eric Davis Foundation's Hunt.

"We know we are influenced by celebrities as a community," she said. "So we are tapping into celebrities, pastors and politicians. We know if we first educate the leaders, we can begin to teach people."

Matthew Jones, pastor of Concord Baptist Church on Liberty Heights Avenue in West Baltimore, said, "People generally come and share everything with their pastor."

Jones, who organizes health fairs at his 1,500-member church and prods parishioners to get health screenings, said he thinks his work has made a difference. A parishioner revealed last week that he has prostate cancer. The good news: Doctors caught it early.

"When he goes to the hospital next time, I'll be there with him," Jones said.

Health care facts

Overall, blacks are more likely to develop cancer and have the highest cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group.

2.8 million blacks have diabetes.

Blacks with diabetes are four times more likely to experience kidney failure than diabetic whites.

Blacks have the highest prevalence for hypertension of any racial or ethnic group.

More black women are overweight or obese than females of other racial or ethnic groups.

Source: Based on statistics compiled by the Eric Davis Foundation.

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