Examining Disparities in Public Health Through the Social Lens: ‘Separate but Unequal’ with the Justice Now initiative 

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On Feb. 16, the Undergraduate Student Government’s Justice Now Initiative welcomed former surgeons general Jerome Adams, M.D., and Regina Benjamin, M.D. to discuss disparities in the United States’ healthcare system. As discussed in the event, these issues have significant and widespread impacts on minority communities, especially Black Americans. USG Student Development Advocacy Director Neha Sistu led the discussion. 

Adams and Benjamin delivered an educational talk that featured both facts and personal perspectives, giving viewers a better understanding of the Black experience in the public health system. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, public health has taken on a new importance for many people. Because of this, Adams and Benjamin state, it is critical that people recognize existing inequities when examining the health of different groups. These disparities result from systemic problems in the healthcare system and are tied to countless other factors in each person’s life. 

“[Health] is in everything we do,” said Benjamin. Adams revealed that 80% of health is a result of everyday activities, such as nutrition, exercise, habits and so on. The remaining 20% is accounted for by traditional medical care, including doctor’s visits and hospital stays. Because of this, both doctors made it clear that public health is much more than just policies and programs directly related to the medical system. 

Benjamin emphasized the importance of preventing the onset of medical problems when dealing with public health “crises,” rather than only treating them after they arise. Both Adams and Benjamin agreed that addressing the root causes of public health issues is vital to long term improvement of health, particularly in populations disproportionately impacted by these problems. 

“They’re crises because we haven’t taken care of them,” said Benjamin. “We could have taken care of them a long time ago.” 

She elaborated on the difference between addressing the cause of public health problems, as opposed to treating the symptoms, which has been the primary focus of Benjamin’s career. 

“We aren’t really dealing with the real issues,” said Adams. He stated that other factors, referred to as social determinants of health, need to be addressed in order to gain a more complete understanding of why such problems arise. These social determinants may include variables such as economic stability, proximity and access to healthcare, environment and a variety of other items. 

In particular, Benjamin cited education as a key component of reducing the disparities in public health across marginalized groups. She believes that motivating people to become interested in healthcare will be the first steps toward healthier communities.  

“It’s hard to teach people how to think if they are not a part of the conversation,” said Benjamin.  

In addition to education, Adams and Benjamin discussed that role models within the medical field make a difference in terms of involvement and care for public health. Both speakers mentioned that they had not encountered a Black doctor for the majority of their early years, showing that there is severe underrepresentation of minority communities within the field. 

The trend is present in Washington D.C., as well, where the majority of surgeons general throughout history have been white. Benjamin and Adams’ pictures are featured in the office of the current surgeon general among the others who have had this job, which sparked a conversation about what these pictures mean to them. Specifically, their pictures are posted near those who intentionally left cases of syphilis untreated in Black Americans in order to study the disease’s effects. This is known as the Tuskegee Study, which took place in the 1930s to the 1970s in Alabama.  

Adams and Benjamin discussed how these historical events made it clear that they have a powerful presence in the medical field.  

“When I walk by [the pictures], it’s the reason I’m here,” said Benjamin. “I want to make sure it never happens again.” 

Justice Now, run through USG’s Student Development Committee, focuses on social, cultural and political topics centered around the Black experience. The committee invites guests to discuss their experiences and expertise on a variety of topics. Students interested in future Justice Now events can RSVP to receive links to discussions about issues that impact Black Americans.  

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