For Smruti Desai, MPH, OMS III, working to address health disparities among minority populations is a crucial element of the whole-person care DOs are trained to provide.
“The core of the osteopathic philosophy is to treat body, mind and spirit, and that includes every struggle a person goes through on the path to health,” says Desai, who attends the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem. “Cultural, social and economic experiences shape our priorities, and health often gets neglected if there are too many barriers.”
For many black Americans, those barriers can result in higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, chronic liver disease, hepatitis B and infant mortality, according to data from the U.S. Office of Minority Health.
DOs and osteopathic medical students across the U.S. are working to reduce these health disparities by increasing access to care, strengthening minority representation in medicine and cultivating cultural competency among future physicians.
“You don’t have to be a minority to have a desire or a commitment to help,” says Darrell Lynn Grace, DO, a general internist in Youngstown, Ohio, who volunteers at two free clinics nearby. “You just have to want to do it and have a heart for reaching out.”
Access to care
For many osteopathic medical schools and service organizations, health fairs aimed at increasing access to care present an avenue toward improving health disparities. TouroCOM-Harlem’s twice-yearly health fair, held in conjunction with the Touro College of Pharmacy, offers preventive health screenings, education and referrals to primary care physicians at a nearby clinic.
“Patients may not know they have high blood pressure or high glucose levels that put them at risk for becoming diabetic,” explains health fair co-organizer Jessica Koren, OMS II, adding that the screenings help provide care for patients who might not otherwise be able to afford treatment.
A lack of trust in the health care system is one factor that can exacerbate health disparities among African-American patients, according to Quintavius Rover, a fourth-year student at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) in Athens, Ohio.
“Recent events such as the Flint water crisis and Hurricane Katrina haven’t done much to build trust; instead, they’re constant reminders of past failures that have disproportionately affected minority populations,” says Rover, who served as president of his school’s chapter of the Student National Medical Association during his preclinical years.
One way to rebuild trust among black patients is by increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine, Rover says. “It’s helpful if patients can see a physician who shares their background, as opposed to someone they may perceive as an outsider,” he explains.
Several osteopathic medical schools, including TouroCOM-Harlem and OU-HCOM, place emphasis on recruiting minority students interested in working with underserved populations.
“At TouroCOM, we focus on outreach initiatives to let the people of Harlem know the school is invested in the community, and also to raise awareness among minority students who are interested in medicine,” says M. Esquire Anthony, DO, a professor at the school.
Boosting cultural competency
Harlem is also home to African immigrant populations from areas such as Senegal, Ghana, Mali, the Ivory Coast and the Caribbean. These patients can face an extra layer of challenges when seeking health care, including language barriers, financial concerns and cultural differences.
Those factors inspired Desai to work with fellow students and professors to organize a health fair at a local Senegalese mosque last year. “We wanted to make it easy and convenient for patients to receive health screenings, and for them to be able to do so in a space where they felt comfortable and at home,” she explains.
TouroCOM-Harlem students and faculty who volunteered at the fair completed cultural competency training before the event. For Gabrielle Jasmin, OMS II, the experience was tremendously valuable. “When you participate in something that makes you more culturally aware, it’s like a symbiotic relationship,” she says. “We’re helping people in the community, but in return they’re helping us become better doctors.”