By Jahnavi Bhatia
BU News Service
The first-ever Black Health Matters Conference was hosted this weekend by Harvard University students to discuss racial disparities in health care.
“Structural racism is not an accident,” Dr. Joan Reede, the President of Harvard Medical School’s Biomedical Science Careers Program, said to an audience of about 200 people on Saturday. She stressed the importance of “data, evidence, and accountability” while looking at health discrepancies across races.
Tania Fabo, one of the Co-Directors of the conference, said, “As an interdisciplinary conference, we are focusing on how health disparities can be addressed across sectors, whether that is using the legal system as a tool to fight modern mechanisms of oppression, improving health literacy and education among Black youths, or recognizing the harmful bias against Black patients that exists in the medical community.”
Fabo said that when she and Sarah Gutema, her co-director, were thinking about their vision for the conference, they wanted it to be “not just a learning opportunity, but also a call-to-action; a mix of educational information along with achievable goals and ideas.”
Linda Bishop Hudson, an attendee and graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health, wanted to know what Reede thought of the roadblocks that prevent Black people from getting into the business of healthcare research.
“The students of Boston Public Schools are not reading our articles in medical journals,” Dr. Reede said, encouraging more direct communication partnerships with schools and students to prepare them to become future leaders.
The conference had a wide range of speakers, from social activists to medical professionals. The panels focused on a diverse range of topics such as geographical discrepancies in health care, health care for black professionals, medico-legal implications of being black and sexual health activism.
One of the most well-attended panels at the event was “ZIP Code vs. Genetic Code: Social Determinants of Health.” Panelists Nancy Krieger, Melody Goodman, Reginald Tucker-Seeley, and Ra’Shaun Nalls discussed different social determinants of health and the healthcare implications that come from racially-segregated neighborhoods.
Kreiger, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, started the discussion by saying that “health inequalities are unjust, avoidable and preventable, so let’s call them that.” She said that it’s not enough to look at social determinants of health without looking at what causes them to become prevalent in certain communities.
Nalls, the Director of Community Engagement at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, talked about his own experience growing up in Roxbury and Dorchester, where he said there were more fast-food chains, liquor shops and tobacco shops than in other neighborhoods.
“I don’t need data to tell you that ZIP codes affect healthcare,” he said.
“Don’t let the research drive the relationship; let the relationship drive the research,” Nalls said, in reference to the relationship between academics and the communities they are studying.
Vivian Ortiz, an attendee, said she agreed with this sentiment.
“I don’t have a PhD in Public Health, but I’m part of the community,” she said.
Ortiz, who has worked on the “Let’s Get Healthy, Boston!” campaign, thinks it is very important to keep in touch with communities “even after your semester-long research project has ended.”
Ortiz also said that she wished the conference was marketed more to the members of the Boston-Cambridge community, not just to members of academia.
Tucker-Seeley, a Professor at the University of Southern California, stressed the importance of giving people from minority communities a role in the discussion on public health.
“There’s a saying in D.C: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said.
Shuqri Abdullah, a student at George Mason University, traveled from Virginia for the conference. She said she agreed that a lot of the conference was like “preaching to the choir,” but said she didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.
“That is the purpose of such conferences, for academics to gather and talk about their work,” she said.