Eliminating Health Disparities: Day 1

Well, technically it’s day 2 for everyone else, but it’s my day one . . . specifically, what I’m grateful for today, are experts with positive intentions for social justice and personal health.

The Science of Eliminating Health Disparities Summit – courtesy the US Department of Health and Human Services (under the leadership of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH))

I had the honor and pleasure of attending a session today on “Operationalizing Culture for Health Disparities Research.”  Operationalization, in social science and humanities, is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept clearly distinguishable or measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations (Wikipedia).  If we can do that, then we might be able to get to the root causes of some behaviors, and utilize that knowledge to prevent disease (and solve the inequalities between some social groups – yay!).  At the very least, it helps groups justify funding 🙂

According to the session explanation:

Culture is frequently cited as an underlying cause of health disparities, yet culture is rarely explicitly defined and operationalized in health research. Culture is erroneously conflated with race and ethnicity as a dichotomous, individual-level variable rather than a multi-dimensional, fluid construct embedded in a multi-level social system. Scientifically, culture is a complex and dynamic conceptual framework that is incongruent with the way it is operationalized in health behavior theories: as a unidimensional, static, and immutable element of a homogeneous group. Lacking a standard definition and operationalization of culture, researchers often devise measures that are not grounded in the science of culture, tested for cross-cultural equivalence, or conceptually comprehensive and nuanced enough to assess the interaction of risk factors that impact disease prevalence, morbidity, and mortality in all population groups. This panel describes a research effort to improve the conceptualization, measurement, and translation of culture to ensure that findings from studies of culture and health are more scientifically valid, relevant to the communities involved, and generalizable across population groups in order to reduce health disparities.

Our esteemed panelists included:

  • Marjorie Kagawa-Singer PhD, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles – Overview
  • Roberto Lewis-Fernandez, MD, Professor, Columbia University – Consensus on Definitions of Culture
  • Charles P Mouton, MD, Senior vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College – Domains and pathways of culture to operationalize in diverse populations
  • William Elwood PhD, Coordinator, NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet)., OBSSR, NIH Recommendations that have emerged from the process on the translational steps needed to apply culture as a concept and construct in health disparities research

All the speakers were engaging and brilliant, but Dr. Kagawa-Singer made a particular impact in her side-commentary about the status of science as “recovering” from Descartes’ decapitation of our minds from our bodies, how an integrated method, recognizing the power of indigenous approaches to health, is necessary.  Obviously, that resonated with me as a yoga teacher, an explorer of indigenous healing modalities, and budding writer on the matter.  With her additional background in Asian Studies, there was a lot of engaging cross-disciplinary subject matter and broad perspective to explore … it kind of made me want to move to LA and become her student.

Dr. Lewis-Fernandez gave an enthusiastic presentation on his position as a psychiatrist, with special emphasis on the new DSM-V he’s contributing to on the subjects of gender and cultural context.  It was exciting to hear the new edition will have more in-depth guidelines for practitioners to diagnose and treat their patience with nuanced understanding and care.

If it weren’t my bed time, I’d lay out much more of the information presented by the panel (and questions posed by the audiences members, mostly researchers in various kinds of Anthropology), not to mention the dancing session we were all treated to with our Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, who is a breath of fresh air (especially relative to my distant memories of older white men filling this position in this past – no offense, guys!). Yeah, Dr. Surgeon General Mama, let’s do the “hip hop twist!”

The panels on Implementing the National Prevention Strategy (implemented in 2010 – and, if followed properly, looks truly groundbreaking) and Working Together to Implement the National Prevention Strategy: Cross-Sector Partnerships were both full of inspiring panelists and thoughtful questions from the audience members (many of whom are leaders in Public Health, the CDC, World Health Organization, several universities, etc.).

The more intimate and niche talk was much more enriching for me, but I missed yesterday’s full menu because of that smelly GRE.  I’ll be grateful for what I could attend!

Plus, I got to spend the day with one of my best friends in the whole wide world, in a pretty sweet location!

I’m looking forward to another mind-tickling day tomorrow . . .


2 thoughts on “Eliminating Health Disparities: Day 1”

  1. The U.S. is so backward in its handling of health issues. Here’s hoping that sessions like this will be taken seriously and implemented soon!

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