by Earnestine Willis, MD, MPH and Clarene Mitchell
Medical College of Wisconsin, Health Equity and Urban Clinical Care Partnerships
Cancer is the second leading cause of death for Americans. However, glaring disparities exist within communities of color. The mere thought of cancer makes one shudder with fear. For this cause, nearly 800 cancer survivors, community health advocates, medical clinicians, academics, and students gathered in Houston, Texas for the 25th Biennial Symposium on Minorities, The Medically Underserved & Health Equity. The six-day event included a robust agenda centered on the theme, “Empowering Communities in the Era of Health Care Reform”. The event was organized by the Intercultural Cancer Council (ICC) and sponsored by the University of Houston, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and others.
ICC promotes policies, programs, partnerships, and research to eliminate the unequal burden of cancer among racial and ethnic minorities and medically underserved populations in the United States, including Native America and Alaska Native Tribal Nations and Organizations and US flag territories and freely-associated states. The first symposium was held in Houston in 1987, at which time they launched National Minority Cancer Awareness Week. The ICC Symposiums were created by Lovell A. Jones, PhD. Jones founded the ICC along with Armin D. Weinberg, PhD.
Against the backdrop of the sweltering summer heat in the 4th largest city in the U.S., the attendees were engaged in sessions that covered a broad range of topics including; “Charting New Initiatives in Heath Disparities”, “Chronic Disease Prevention and Control”, “Capacity Building Workshops”, and “Health Disparities and the Media.” Each day began with “Exercise Your Way to Good Health” at 6:00 am, giving participants an opportunity to take care of their physical beings as they worked to improve the health of others.
According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2012 report, “African Americans are more likely to develop and die from cancer than any other racial or ethnic group.” The report also states “Disparities in the cancer burden among racial and ethnic minorities largely reflect obstacles to receiving health care services related to cancer prevention, early detection, and high-quality treatment, with poverty as the overriding factor.
Noted national speakers at the event included eminent national Black health leaders William (Bill) C. Jenkins, MPH, PhD, Disease Transmission Specialist; Harold P. Freeman, MD, President and Founder of the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention and Senior Advisor to the Director of the National Cancer Institute; David Satcher, MD, PhD, the 16th Surgeon General of the United States; Rick Kittles, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Jenkins, formerly of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is credited for exposing the injustice of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments during his early years as a public health officer. His efforts helped to put an end to the 40 year study that continues to be a dark cloud hanging over the Black community and research institutions. As noted by President Clinton in 1997 when he provided an apology to the eight remaining survivors, “The United States government did something that was wrong-deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens…clearly racist.” Jenkins’ commitment to the Tuskegee victims continued after the experiments were closed down through his advocating for the survivors when he managed the Participant Health Benefits Program which assured medical services to the survivors.
During his presentation, “The Evolution of Science and Service in Health Equity”, Dr. Jenkins spoke on the importance of history being known and connected to what we are experiencing today. “Communities of color need to understand their cultural contributions to health developments”, he stated. He reminded everyone of W.E.B. Du Bois establishing the framework for what we know today as social determinates of health in his 1899 classic book, The Philadelphia Negro. In reference to moving toward health equity, Dr. Jenkins stated, “There is a pressing need to fund community-based organizations to impact health disparities.” He echoed what was stated throughout the conference: The solutions to addressing health disparities are within the communities that are experiencing the problems. These problems continue because the communities are not empowered with necessary resources. Too much of the focus is on the development of corporate leaders instead of community (servant) leaders. “We have to understand and respect the competency of community people”, furthered Dr. Jenkins. Although the symposium featured national cancer experts, it was noted that communities of color often experience multiple chronic conditions, so effective approaches must include strategies to address more than just cancer.
Beyond the sharing of best practices to advance health equity, the Symposium included moments of celebration as well. There was spontaneous celebration when the announcement was made that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. The crowd erupted in thunderous applause. It was very fitting that the Symposium focused on “Empowering Communities in the Era of Health Care Reform” and this very critical decision was made during the timeframe of this symposium. Speakers throughout the duration of the symposium modified their presentations to align with the significance of this landmark decision.
The planned celebrations included Dr. Satcher, who is the Director the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Center for Excellence on Health Disparities Poussaint-Satcher-Cosby Chair in Mental Health, Morehouse School of Medicine, receiving the Herbert W. Nickens Memorial Award. Honoring the spirit and legacy of Dorothy I. Height, many beautiful hats were worn during the Height and Hope Awards Celebration. Dr. Height was a long supporter and attendee of the ICC Biennial Symposium. This year’s Dorothy I. Height Honoree was Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD. After being frustrated that she had not readily diagnosed a baby that had a badly swollen hand during her internship at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Dr. Gaston immersed herself in the study of sickle cell disease (SCD). In 1986 Dr. Gaston published the results of a groundbreaking national study that proved the effectiveness of giving SCD children long-term penicillin treatment to prevent septic infections. Her study showed that babies should be screened for SCD at birth, so that preventive penicillin could be given right away. The study resulted in Congressional legislation to encourage and fund SCD screening programs nationwide. Within one year, forty states had begun screening programs. One of the most important conclusions of her work was the ease with which the complications of Sickle Cell Disease could be avoided with early treatment, a life-saving practice that became a central policy of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Texas Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee provided an energizing talk during the closing session on that Sunday morning. This symposium had a family reunion mood to it. There was a great sense of affinity among the attendees. Diversity was celebrated, truthful conversations were had and authentic relationships were developed. The intensive six days seemingly ended too soon, many of the attendees were already looking forward to the next biennial event. Longtime ICC symposium Sandra Millon-Underwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, summarized her thoughts on this year’s events, “Most significant to me was the reminder by Dr. Satcher that the work that we all do should be likened to a ‘relay’ and not ‘a race’”. Dr. Underwood is with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she serves as an American Cancer Society Professor and Northwestern Mutual Life Research Scholar. She continued, “And the caution is to always be mindful that even when it seems that the ‘relay’ is over it is important to keep pushing forward.”