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Thousands Attend NIH Summit on Eliminating Health Disparities

The theme of this Summit was the intersection of science, practice, and policy that brought together researchers across disciplines and areas of health.

By Karen Studwell

The NIH Summit: The Science of Eliminating Health Disparities brought together current and former leaders in research and public health, including scientists and community members alike to highlight the progress NIH and communities have made since Congress established the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) in 2000. NCMHD Director John Ruffin was joined by former NIH Directors Harold Varmus and Bernadine Healey, as well as former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, former Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary for Health David Satcher and the Acting Director of NIH, Raynard Kington, in recognizing the challenge of making the elimination of health disparities a priority across NIH. “Health disparities research is key in our quest to improve the health of all Americans,” said Kington. “This summit represents the multidisciplinary scientific progress that the NIH has made to understand health disparities, and underscores the significance of partnerships to eliminate this complex issue.”

More than 3,000 community leaders, researchers, stakeholders and policy advocates attended the conference, along with many of the NIH Institute Directors. The theme of this Summit was the intersection of science, practice, and policy that brought together researchers across disciplines and areas of health. The goals of the Summit were to: 1) Showcase the collective contribution of NIH in the development of new knowledge in the Science of Eliminating Health Disparities; 2) Highlight the progress of NIH minority health and health disparities research activities to improve prevention, diagnostic, and treatment methods; 3) Increase awareness and understanding of disparities in health; 4) Share best-practice models in research, capacity-building, outreach, and integrated strategies to find solutions to health disparities; and 5) Identify gaps in health disparities research.

“The elimination of health disparities will require a wide spectrum of approaches, “ said John Ruffin, Director of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, which sponsored the Summit. “Continual improvement and integration of different paradigms is fundamental in understanding and identifying real solutions to health disparities.”

Experts discussed strategies, challenges, and progress in diagnosing, treating, and preventing some of the most debilitating and devastating diseases and conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that disproportionately burden African Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and individuals of all races and ethnicities living in poor and medically underserved communities such as rural areas.

Presentations by APA Members

Psychologists from NIH and across the country joined nearly 300 other presenters at the summit to share their research and experiences. Current APA Board of Scientific Affairs member Vickie Mays, UCLA Department of Psychology, is a Director of one of the NCMHD’s Centers of Excellence and participated as a panelist in two workshops—one concerning the collection of data on race and ethnicity, and the other on the next decade of HIV in the United States. According to Mays, the meeting provided a much needed opportunity for Center Directors to come together and learn what each are doing and develop collaborations across centers and disciplines. APA members James Jackson, Director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and Brian Smedley, Vice President and Director of the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, also presented. At the opening session, Maya Angelou challenged the participants to look at the issue from the positive perspective of achieving health equity for all, rather than focus on disparities, which she feels has a negative connotation. 

Public Policy Solutions

Representing the policymaker perspective, both Howard Dean, a physician and former Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), addressed the Summit. Cummings thanked Ruffin for his leadership and shared his concern for minority health, stating, “We know there are social determinants of health, such as poverty, inadequate education, poor housing, and toxic environments that contribute greatly to the health disparities that people of color face.” He also indicated that as the anticipated health care reform legislation moved through Congress, they would seek to address issues that are key to eliminating health disparities, such as: 1) providing people with access to quality, affordable health care, regardless of their employment status or employer type; 2) institutionalizing measures that measure the quality of care for persons of color, 3) eliminating discriminatory treatment in our health care system through cultural competency training; and 4) enhancing language access and stronger civil rights enforcement.

Career Development Opportunities

At the Summit, NCMHD Director John Ruffin also announced the rejuvenation of the Center’s intramural research program to expand research into eliminating health disparities. The redesigned intramural research program will be a campus-community system with two major components: a health disparities career development component and the health disparities research intervention component.

The health disparities career development component is a five-year effort that will bring health disparities researchers from the NCMHD pool of Loan Repayment Program graduates to the NIH to gain research experience and training to develop their research careers further. These grantees have received support to pay tuition costs incurred while attaining a MD, PhD, or DrPH degree. In the health disparities research intervention component, health disparities research will be based at the NIH campus and within health disparity communities. Under this effort, researchers will study the biologic and behavioral causes of health disparities.