U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin joined six former surgeons general Thursday at the UCF College of Medicine to discuss the disproportionately high disease and death rates for Blacks and Hispanics and to find ways to close the gap in racial and ethnic health disparities.
The federal officials spoke at the Central Florida Partnership on Health Disparities’ conference, “Health Disparities and Their True Consequences.” Those consequences include the fact that in Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard counties:
- Black babies are three times more likely to die in their first year of life than White babies, and that number is worsening.
- The death rate from prostate cancer is twice as high for Black men than White men.
- The death rate from diabetes is twice as high for Blacks and almost 20 percent higher for Hispanics than Whites.
Dr. Benjamin told health advocates that as a physician with “300 million Americans as my new patients,” she is committed to finding ways to prevent obesity, tobacco use, AIDS, violence and bullying and “the health disparities that plague our country.”
“Prevention is the foundation of my work,” she said, adding that “cultural competence doesn’t have to do with the color of our patients’ skin. It’s all about dignity.”
Dr. Benjamin was followed by former surgeons general who served during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Dr. Richard Carmona, Dr. Audrey Manley, Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, Dr. David Satcher, and Dr. Antonia Novello.
Dr. Carmona talked about the medical and political challenges health advocates face. “We are a nation divided by our health matrix,” he said. “How could that be in a nation that prides itself on equality?”
Dr. Moritsugu used his own experience as a Type 1 diabetic to show the impact of diabetes on the country, especially minorities. Currently, 24 million Americans suffer from diabetes; another 81 million are pre-diabetic. “If we don’t do something, those 81 million people will progress to diabetes,” he said. “Do the math. That means we will have 105 million people with diabetes in this country.”
Dr. Elders said physicians must be “transformational leaders” to improve the health care system for all patients, no matter their ethnicity, income level, life experience or native language. “You need to find out what language your patients hurt in,” she said.