Part of public health officials’ work lies in securing health equity, or the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people.” While a myriad of factors contribute to public health, institutionalized racism is often overlooked despite its substantial impact.

To honor the memory of pioneering Eastside physician Dr. Frank Bryant during Black History Month, UT Health San Antonio will host the 2017 Frank Bryant Jr., M.D., Memorial Lecture in Medical Ethics on Feb. 21 from 12-1 p.m. at the Holly Auditorium.

Attendees can register for the free event here.

In her lecture, “Achieving Health Equity: Tools for a National Campaign Against Racism,” Dr. Camara Jones will frame her discussion by first asking the audience, “Why should people who are concerned with health be concerned with racism?”

Much of Jones’ research, including her 2014 TEDx talk, focuses on racism’s impact on health equity. She is the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association and currently the senior fellow in the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Cardiovascular Research Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Dr. Camara Jones is sworn in as a member of the DeKalb County Board of Health.
Dr. Camara Jones is sworn in as a member of the DeKalb County Board of Health. Credit: Courtesy DeKalb / County Board of Health

A family physician and social epidemiologist, Jones stresses the importance of universal access to high-quality health care. She also addresses the root causes behind social determinants of health, or the conditions in which people are born, grow up, live, work, and age. These circumstances – neighborhoods and their access to food and health care, family income, amount of pedestrian-friendly walkways or toxic pollutants in one’s environment – are shaped by the distribution of money, power, and resources on a global, national, and local level.

Jones defines racism as “a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks.” She uses a narrative-driven approach to illuminate topics that might otherwise be difficult for her audiences to comprehend.

In her narrative, the “Gardener’s Tale,” Jones presents an allegory about a gardener with two flower boxes, one with rich soil and red flowers, the other with poor soil and pink flowers, to drive home the point that racism “saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources.”

Jones has written extensively on her theoretic framework for understanding racism on different levels, be it institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized. She uses this approach to jump-start thinking about how to mitigate the impacts of racism on health.

“Much of our national health debate falls back on the idea of individual responsibility or behavioral choice as being the main determinant of a person’s health,” said Dr. Ruth Berggren, director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at UT Health San Antonio.

“But this is only a half-truth. At least half, if not more, of our health determinants are things over which disadvantaged people have little control. These determinants are often structural, like the physical environment of one’s neighborhood, access to fresh, wholesome, affordable foods, clean air, safe drinking water, safe venues, and protected time for exercise.”

Health determinants also can be cultural, Berggren said. Eating patterns and food choices are often part of a person’s family tradition and culture. Exercise may be an unattainable luxury for a single mother, for example.

Determinants also can be social and political. Berggren explained how health policies limiting access to well-woman care and birth control contributed to the 79% rise in maternal mortality in Texas from 2010 to 2014.

Some investigators now hypothesize that race-associated differences in health outcomes are, in fact, due to the effects of racism and its impacts on the social determinants of health. Jones’ research explores how racism operates in health outcomes and healthcare access.

“When making decisions, it’s important to note who is at the table and who is not at the table,” Jones said, especially when decisions impact large populations who may not be adequately represented. “I discuss ways to equip people on how to organize and strategize [in order] to take action.”

One way of educating people is to make them aware of existing treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the importance of upholding them.

The 2017 Frank Bryant Jr., M.D., Memorial Lecture in Medical Ethics will help frame this important discussion about racism for the healthcare community to empower those working in public health to take steps toward health equity.

“We wanted someone who is not only a great communicator, but of national stature and recognized leadership,” Berggren said. “Dr. Jones is exceptionally qualified to explain the facts on racial disparities in health, and she actually has practical suggestions about what doctors and medical schools should do about it.”

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.