In the Public Interest
Although the United States offers some of the most advanced health and mental health services in the world, not everyone in the country shares equally in these benefits. These health disparities are of critical concern for psychologists. Over the past several decades, various government agencies have collected data to measure the extent of health disparities in the United States, and many public and private organizations have launched programs to reduce or eradicate them. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched two such initiatives: the HHS Action Plan to Reduce Health Disparities and the National Stakeholder Strategy for Achieving Health Equity. However, health disparities persist — in fact, according to a 2012 Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report, some have worsened.
A number of factors lead to health disparities, including having poor or no health insurance; stereotypes that health-care professionals hold about racial/ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients, or people of different ages, gender, or socioeconomic groups; language barriers between immigrants and health-care personnel; a lack of proximity to health care options, particularly for people in rural or inner-city areas; and barriers to access for some disabled individuals. According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, social determinants of health — the everyday conditions and circumstances that are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources — are the primary cause of health disparities.
So what are psychologists and APA doing to reverse these trends? In January, APA launched a Health Disparities Initiative as part of APA's Strategic Plan. We are fortunate to have Dr. Lula Beatty, through an intergovernmental personnel act agreement with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, working with APA on this initiative.
Through the initiative, APA will work to increase support for research, training, public education and interventions that improve health and reduce health disparities among underserved and vulnerable populations. Gathering information about the contributions of psychologists and other professionals working in these areas is a critical component of the initiative. In particular, the initiative will focus on evidence-based and best practices and the dissemination and implementation of effective interventions. Regarding evidence-based practice, an important focus will be "evidence for whom": Are the evidence-based practices effective for the different health disparity population groups?
The initiative will initially focus on stress, obesity and substance abuse and addiction — health conditions selected because of their prevalence or impact within populations that experience health disparities, their high association with other chronic diseases, the maturity of the knowledge base for each of these areas, and psychology's demonstrated interest, expertise and experience in these areas.
The National Steering Committee on Health Disparities, made up of eight eminent member psychologists with expertise in health disparities and related issues, will guide us in developing the initiative. Our goal is nothing short of having a lasting impact on improving the health of underserved populations.
On a related note, the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and the Public Interest committees are focusing much of their convention programming this year on health and health disparities.
For more information on this key APA Strategic Objective, see Health Disparities Initiative.
I look forward to seeing many of you at APA's Annual Convention in Orlando, Aug. 2–5, and hope you will stop by these and other Public Interest sessions, as well as learn more about the critical work psychologists are doing to eradicate health disparities.