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Seeking Equality in Health Care

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A soon-to-be-named steering committee -- composed of 25 people from business, government, labor, education, churches, and various ethnic groups -- will have until November to complete the blueprint, says Levinson. A larger coalition of some 300 people from similar national, regional, and local organizations will then come up with a detailed plan. This plan is to be completed by November 2001.

The effort dovetails nicely with the Healthy People 2010 initiative launched by David Satcher, MD, PhD, surgeon general and assistant secretary for health at HHS. "Our goal is to increase length and quality of life for all people and to eliminate racial disparities by 2010. For the first time, the standards for health and well-being are identical for all races ... including length of life, deaths and illness from major chronic diseases," Levinson tells WebMD.

Economic and educational differences are at the heart of the health disparities, he says, "forcing people into lower-level jobs and encouraging unpleasant and harmful lifestyles. Poor housing and work environment depresses the spirit as well as the health. Being crushed with the burdens of life, not having a chance to develop one's mind or to enjoy life -- it's a whole combination of factors, and that's why the solution has to be a whole combination of factors."

Access to health care has been cited as an important issue. Many members of minority groups do not have health insurance and cannot pay for the care they need. Distrust -- of the health-care system and of doctors -- is also at the heart of the disparities, says Stephen Thomas, PhD, director of Emory University's Institute of Minority Health Research in the Rollins School of Public Health. He has spent 15 years studying the issue.

"Racism in medicine and public health still exists, because people who run these systems are human ... with bias and prejudice that we must acknowledge," Thomas tells WebMD. "We need more minority providers. We need to look at the training our physicians get.

"We also need to realize that for African-Americans, the faith community -- the churches -- is critical in building trust and educating people about health care and prevention. Their influence has not been fully mobilized."

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