Health Disparities: Stories to Tell

Published on
March 5, 2010

A conference on health disparities for an audience of journalists is bound to produce lots of story ideas, and the one under way in Washington, organized by the National Association of Black Journalists, is no exception.

Here are some ideas for stories that have emerged from two days (so far) of discussions:

1. The pattern of HIV/AIDS changed dramatically in 1994, from a largely white disease to a largely black disease, and advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS say that the media have paid too little attention.  "AIDS in America is a black disease," said Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.  Largely as a result of demographics, the South is a hot spot for new HIV/AIDS cases.

2. Among the factors feeding the higher infection rate among blacks is their higher incarceration rate. Henrie Treadwell, director of Community Voices, based at the Morehouse School of Medicine, said that journalists should pay closer attention to the lack of health and social supports available to prisoners who are released into communities, which not only makes it harder for them to reintegrate into society, but also puts society at greater risk.

3. While health care reform would take care of health care access problems for many Americans, it will not in and by itself reduce racial and ethnic health disparities, noted Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Equitable access to timely, patient-centered care is important," he said. "But access to health care accounts for only about 20 percent of a person's health. What we need to focus on is what makes people sick in the first pace. One of the most important factors in your health is whether you have an education. Jobs are important. Lack of access to food and environmental health hazards – all of these conspire against health."  Smedley's center's Place Matters Initiative provides background information for reporters interested in examining how where one lives affects one's health.

4. The disproportionate impact of mental illness on racial and ethnic minorities begs for journalistic exploration.  Latinos and African Americans are no more likely to suffer from mental disorders, but they are 11 percent less likely to receive appropriate treatment, said  Dr. Annelle B. Primm,  deputy medical director and director of the office of minority and national affairs for the American Psychiatric Association.   What are the barriers to treatment in your community? Primm is concerned that the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, which went into effect in January, will provide little assistance to minority populations because only 10 percent of mental health providers come from minority groups. "Even with parity, African American families with have a hard time finding a mental health practictioner who looks like them, who understands their culture and their needs."

5. Sixteen percent of people in most local jails suffer from mental illness.  "That's a great story," said Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter who wrote about his son's mental illness in "Crazy: A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness." "Our nation's jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums," he said.