Do you think of health disparities as a problem for minorities and the poor? Society has readily associated health disparities with a certain group of people, but it has a much bigger target -- everyone.
"Any circumstance that serves as a barrier to receiving health care is considered a health disparity," says Lovell Jones, Ph.D., director of the Dorothy I. Height Center for Health Equity and Evaluation Research (CHEER) and distinguished teaching professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
After more than three decades of research focused on health disparities, Jones has determined that the issue has become more critical as the nation's demographics have changed.
Many factors serve as barriers to individuals receiving sufficient health care.
Living in an area that doesn't have adequate health care facilities will cause health disparities. People who lack knowledge about particular diseases are a product of this growing issue. Not having health care insurance reduces a person's access to health care services, and cultural lifestyles can also lead to health disparities.
"Even the economy plays a role in health disparities," Jones says. "Not being able to afford expensive copays for preventive services will cause individuals to only see a doctor when they become ill. This ideology can put people at risk for letting health care issues go undertreated and serious illnesses -- including cancer -- are discovered in the later stages when they are difficult to treat."
Educating people about health risks and remedies
Education plays a big role in eliminating health disparities. If people aren't properly educated on the different risk factors for developing a disease, or on the appropriate interventions available to reduce their risk, there is no self-awareness and individual responsibility in place.
"We need to evaluate how we are educating people and improve the dissemination of our health messages to the public," Jones says. "There is also a need to increase the number of health care providers that communicate health messages in a culturally competent way."
Jones believes the formation of CHEER -- a collaboration between MD Anderson and the University of Houston -- is an example of a positive move in this direction. CHEER, a comprehensive health disparities center, combines research, education and training with a broad range of educational departments and experts.
Through the years, Jones has led the effort in taking a biopsychosocial method to address health disparities.
"There is a correlation between health disparities and areas of study," he says. "Disciplines like political science, law, economics, social work and even history all play a role in addressing health disparities. Being able to use this "holistic" approach will help us to better shape how we are going to change health and health disparities in this nation."
A defining moment
"In a broad sense, we've made little impact with health disparities over the years," Jones says.
Although cancer mortality rates are starting to decline, the incidence rate is increasing. As the demographics continue to shift in those populations where the mortality rates are higher, Jones believes the general population will see an increase in mortality rates.
Jones' ongoing efforts to eliminate health disparities are ever present with the upcoming Biennial Symposium on Minorities, the Medically Underserved and Health Equity. The symposium, hosted by CHEER and the Intercultural Cancer Council -- an organization cofounded by Jones 20 years ago -- will address not only cancer, but other diseases.
"The symposium has no specific target audience, because health disparities impact everyone," he says.
Lovell Jones, Ph.D. discusses the cost of health disparities.