Ushering in a New Era in Health Equity

Posted on April 6, 2016 by J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health

A rich and storied history connects health and people of color in America. The architects of our nation’s civil rights and health equity movements led major change in addressing the disparities that prevented minority populations from enjoying the same health status as other Americans. During National Minority Health Month 2016 in April, we recognize the valiant efforts of our country’s health equity champions who ensure that everyone has an equal chance at a healthier life.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH), an office whose roots stretch across the health equity landscape of this great nation. The vision to create OMH was made possible in 1985 when HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler released the Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health (Heckler Report). This landmark report propelled minority health forward as a national issue and analyzed the major factors that contributed to the mortality and lower health status of racial and ethnic minorities. It also led to the establishment of the HHS OMH in 1986.

What we knew then, as we know now, is that disease is one of many considerations that impact health. Diverse factors, including poverty and education, affect health and well-being. This sentiment was not lost on Dr. Herbert W. Nickens, the first OMH director.

Dr. Nickens’ passion fueled the establishment of structures that would help implement the Heckler Report recommendations and respond to new issues in minority health. Through tenacious dedication, OMH’s work was catapulted into a new realm that included needs assessments, research and evaluation projects, community-based programs, and the development of culturally appropriate health information materials.

I stand proud to be an extension of the legacy of OMH and Dr. Nickens’ vision, for he was a role model to me as a medical student and continues to be so today. In the 30 years since his tenure, we have seen reductions in heart disease across all racial/ethnic groups and obesity rates among low-income preschoolers; childhood vaccination disparities are nearly nonexistent; and teen pregnancy among adolescents of all racial/ethnic groups have shown significant declines. Also, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, about 20 million more Americans—including millions of people of color—now have the benefits of health coverage.

Racial and ethnic health disparities persist however, as evidenced by higher rates of diabetes, cancer, hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, and infant mortality, among others. America is becoming increasingly diverse, and the future of our global competitiveness depends on ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential for health.

To accelerate health equity in this era of health care and public health, we must bolster collaborations that reach across sectors such as education, justice, housing, and labor and confront the structural forces and social, economic, and political influences on the health of our communities. Let us join together in April, and throughout the year, in a renewed commitment to end health disparities and achieve health equity in America.

J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE, is the Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health and the Director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).