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Understanding Health Disparities

“The richest Americans live an average of 15 years longer than the poorest Americans,” said Martine Powers of the Washington Post as she kicked off a Washington Post Live forum on “The Future of Health” on June 4, 2019. The panel discussion focused on correlations between income and health featuring Dr. Georges Benjamin, president of the American Public Health Association and Research!America board member, and Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika of Drexel University.

“We have to go upstream and look at how we got here,” to understand the implications of social factors and health disparities, Dr. Kumanyika explained. For example, regarding the homeless population, she suggested, “Why do we have policies that only allow certain people to have homes? You have to look at the causes of the causes of the causes.”

“Eighty percent of what keeps you healthy happens outside the doctor’s office,” added Dr. Benjamin. “Once you understand that, there’s some things you can do” to address health disparities. Speaking to what doctors can do, he added, “If you really want to make a difference, then recognize the social conditions that your patients are in and engage in a collective way through your society – show up for that public health hearing, show up for that housing hearing.”

The panelists also explored issues related to health disparities such as food security and climate change. Climate change, Dr. Benjamin emphasized, “is the most pressing public health problem we face today.” And, as Dr. Kumanyika said, “it is the disadvantaged people who most lack the capacity to recover from health challenges presented by climate change.”

Another panel featured Bernard J. Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., who discussed the new Thrive Local initiative that aims to connect health care and social services providers to address pressing social needs. He highlighted new survey data showing that Americans view their social needs as equally important to their health as medical care.

Renowned author Deepak Chopra discussed the link between mental wellbeing and physical health, and the impact of social media and technology on health, and Yael Lehmann, president and CEO of The Food Trust and Pinch & Plate Chef Eric Adjepong discussed issues of food security, access to healthy foods, and public health.

View the full archives of the event on the Washington Post Live site.