Environmental Factor

September 2011

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Researcher links economic recession with growing minority health disparities

By Ian Thomas
September 2011

Irene Dankwa-Mullan, M.D.

Prior to joining NIMHD, Dankwa-Mullan served as the medical director and public health physician with the Montgomery County, Md. Public Health Department. (Photo courtesy of Arnold Greenwell)

Paul Jung, M.D.

Jung, right, arrived at NIEHS in February 2010, after serving as an investigator for the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. (Photo courtesy of Arnold Greenwell)

In an Aug. 9 seminar devoted to the latest in minority health disparities research, scientists and administrators from NIEHS were treated to an informal discussion with one of the field's foremost experts, Irene Dankwa-Mullan, M.D., director of the Office of Innovation and Program Coordination at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD)(http://www.nimhd.nih.gov/) Exit NIEHS. Over the course of the hour, attendees covered topics ranging from social, environmental, and biological determinants of health, to current policies surrounding income and educational equality.

“NIEHS has always been committed to addressing health disparities,” said NIEHS Chief of Staff Cmdr. Paul Jung, M.D., who hosted the event. “Unfortunately, this issue comes part-and-parcel with environmental health, so it's imperative that our Institute direct resources toward improving health for everyone."

A multifaceted area of health

Health disparities research is a multifaceted area of study, consisting of several key components including basic, clinical, social, and behavioral research, each one conducted with the primary goal of further understanding why health differences exist between various populations. Still, Dankwa-Mullan stressed the importance of remembering that everything is linked.

“Every morning, we wake up and check the Dow Jones to track the economic recession, and yet little is done to track the social recession that's happening at the same time,” she explained. “Socioeconomic and psychosocial stresses, such as poverty, poor education, social isolation, and unemployment, can become biologically embedded in a population. These are then transmitted onto future generations, if there is no intervention.”

Where science meets policy

One of 27 Institutes and Centers within NIH, the mission of the NIMHD is to coordinate, assess, and lead the NIH effort to reduce and, eventually, eliminate health disparities among minority groups. This is done by promoting biological, physical and social health; fostering emerging programs; disseminating information; and reaching out to minority and other health disparity communities. Ultimately however, Dankwa-Mullan admitted that research alone can only do so much.

“Scientific evidence can inform policies on what must be done but, inevitably, change lies within the policy making process itself,” she concluded. “If it could be scientifically proven that raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour would result in more Americans leading healthier, more productive lives, then the burden would still fall on law makers to implement that finding in the form of policy. That can be a challenge and, until this culture changes, the gap in overall health quality between minority populations and the rest of society will always exist.” 

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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