Public Health Hero: Barbara Ferrer

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Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH — Boston Public Health Commission

Barbara Ferrer knows the investment in public health research extends far greater than just benefits for health; it is a cornerstone in ensuring social justice, equality and opportunity for every member of this country."My hope is that in 5 years, because of a better use of public dollars to support public health research and infrastructure, we can close the health disparities gap in our nation and identify what are the best practices and implement them across the country."

Barbara Ferrer, PhD, MPH, and her colleagues are partnering with stakeholder organizations in the Boston community and using research to make a change for the social good. Combining their efforts on a task force on health, these partnerships from academia, business, health care industry and the community are working to address and end the racial health disparities that distinctly disadvantage black residents from white residents throughout the local area. Research on the two groups has illustrated that while keeping all other major factors constant, blacks in the community will fare far worse when compared against the overall health of whites, in almost every major indicator used to determine such levels. "This is a matter that has a rippling effect on major aspects of society and economy. Health inequities are generally an indicator of other inequities negatively effecting the society and the economy. You usually see unequal opportunity, employment, access -- all of which have a damaging result on the community and economy."

Ferrer and her partners developed a blueprint for eliminating racial and ethnic disparities which would immediately enact change, beginning with the way research data was collected and received about health and morbidity to represent racial, ethnic and language differences. With quality information now that would clearly illustrate and identify the gaps in health, they were able to look at other factors attributing to the poor health status for blacks as well. This blueprint is in the implementation stages, and will assess two major areas to 1) better understand the experience for minorities when they engage in the health care system, especially in an area like Boston which is unique because of its ease and accessibility to health care centers and resources, and a health care coverage rate of 97%; and 2) determining the other factors that are occurring that are negatively impacting levels of health.

The research to generate this blueprint has led to an overall change in and shift in addressing health inequities overall. Ferrer emphasizes the need to look at such issues in a much more encompassing way, in order to identify the major connections to existing policies in development, education, economic growth that are having an impact on the status of people's health. "One of the biggest changes for us from this experience is learning the need to get involved in policy issues that are affecting health inequitites. We look at the data, develop a policy approach and implement it. We are making sound policy decisions based on science, and this is the role public health departments must play as we move further into this century."

And this change in approach has led to major changes in improving health equity. Strict policy regulations have reduced exposure to tobacco, ensured every neighborhood had access to one full service supermarket and improved roads to better encourage exercise.

"We don't normally expect health departments to focus on issues like this, but that is the need for change and understanding it is all these factors that are related and contributing to health and need to be looked at in an overall, comprehensive approach for community health."

Policy Contacts

Funding research gives all of us a better chance of living a healthier life.
Pam Hirata, heart disease survivor