The History and Continuing Importance of National Minority Health Month
by LaShon Seastrunk Beamon
by LaShon Seastrunk Beamon
In 1914, at a session of the Annual Tuskegee Negro Conference, Booker T. Washington, educator, author and former advisor to several presidents, presented data that outlined the economic costs of the Black population’s substandard health status. At the time, Black Americans were experiencing higher rates of suffering and mortality compared to white Americans from almost all diseases, including tuberculosis and pneumonia. The health disparities affecting Black Americans were caused by poor working and living conditions, what we would refer to today as social determinants of health (SDOH).
Washington’s findings led the U.S. Public Health Service to institute National Negro Health Week in 1915. From 1915–1951, the first week in April was designated to improve the health status of the Black population by educating, providing greater access to healthcare and increasing the number of Black professionals within the field of public health. In 1986, the Department of Health and Human Services established an Office of Minority Health to coordinate efforts to eliminate health disparities and promote health equity, and the observance became a month-long event.
In 2002, Congress passed a resolution creating National Minority Health and Health Disparities Month. Outlining numerous disparities, including the fact “that minorities are more likely to die from cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, chemical dependency, diabetes, infant mortality, violence and, in recent years, AIDS,” the tenets for the launch of National Negro Health Week and the resolution to enact National Minority Health and Health Disparaties Month, though over 87 years apart, still speak to nearly identical health challenges these communities face today.
When reviewing the CDC’s top five current leading causes of death for both Black females and males, they still include heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and, for Black males, homicide. The CDC and other federal agencies recently acknowledged that racism, both structural and interpersonal, is a fundamental cause of health inequities, health disparities, and disease. The most recent infant mortality data, a marker used to provide the overall health of a society, shows that Black infant mortality is at 10.6 per 1,000 live births — that’s more than double that of white Americans. The infant mortality numbers are also dire for other minority groups, with Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders at 8.2 followed by Native Americans/Alaska Natives at 7.9 and Hispanics at 5.
Across the areas of cardiovascular disease and cancer, the disparities between minority groups are astounding. While the leading causes of death for all Americans are heart disease at 23.1% and cancer at 21.0%, Asian Americans outpace all groups with cancer being their leading cause of death at 24.7% for men and 25.4% for women, followed by Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women at 25.5%.
Now more than ever it’s imperative that the work being done to address these health disparities is more encompassing, examining the intersectionality of many factors that contribute to a community’s health and health outcomes, including social determinants of health.
Also, the complexities and multifaceted nature of minority health and health disparities further underscore the fact that communication practitioners tackling these challenges must leverage a multitude of partners and strategies. First off, adequate funding to support these initiatives is necessary, but communication team members must also be culturally competent. The communities being impacted should not only trust the partners they are working with, but they must have a seat at the table too. Additionally, by including national and local partnerships in these efforts, we not only add credibility but the resources and the diverse perspectives they bring are equally of value. Leveraging community-based trusted messengers, who can serve as spokespersons and advocates to champion policies and funding to support health equity, empowers the communities they represent and helps to create lasting systemic change, nationally and locally.
As a purpose-driven communications and public affairs leader in the health equity space, Clyde Group has assisted our clients on implementing communication strategies to address health disparities. For example, in aiming to improve outcomes particularly for underserved communities, we helped one client not only reach groups underrepresented in biomedical research but we have helped members from those communities enroll in a national precision medicine initative. For one Fortune 100 biopharma client, we helped establish its enterprise-wide health equity communications strategy and amplified major D&I commitments it made to advance health equity, bolster supplier diversity, address clinical trial diversity, increase workforce representation, and enhance employee giving. For another Fortune 150 biopharma client, we serve as the agency of record for its patient advocacy arm, supporting engagement with important patient advocacy organizations and advocates in order to better center the patient voice — particularly representing underserved communities — throughout the entire product lifecycle. As our work in this space continues and broadens, we remain focused on supporting our clients goals of increasing health equity while bringing not only our experience in this specific area but our own personal passion to support these communities who are still struggling with health challenges.
More than a century ago, Booker T. Washington understood that economic and social inequalities were directly tied to health outcomes. And while we’ve made progress on improving some outcomes since then, we clearly have a ways to go in creating true equity in our healthcare system. The correlation between these key societal pillars requires that communication approaches to these continuing challenges should be met with strategies that mirror the need and the communities being served. Yes, April is National Minority Health Month, but the championing and advocacy of health equity needs to be a year-round effort that we must all work towards together.
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