Every year around this time we usually publish a black...

August 27, 1991|By Catherine E. Pugh | Catherine E. Pugh,1991 The Baltimore Sun Company

Every year around this time we usually publish a black arts and entertainment section. However, this year we've decided to focus on black health issues because there is a crisis in the black community regarding health care and preventive health care measures.

Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, cancer, substance abuse and AIDS are gripping the black community, and thus are the focus of this issue. These illnesses, according to the Heckler-Malone report, a national study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, account for 62 percent of deaths in the black community. The life expectancy of black males, at 64 years, is lower than any other segment of the population. The life expectancy of black females has dropped to 72.

Changing lifestyles will assist in reducing these illnesses. These include eliminating habits such as smoking, substance abuse and alcohol abuse, and turning to healthier diets and regular exercise programs.

Recently, in an effort to provide insight into this problem, I held a round table discussion with 14 black health care professionals to ascertain their views on this growing problem. We share their observations with you in this issue.

I agree with the point raised by one health care professional participating in our meeting. Shirley Nathan Pulliam pointed out that it is difficult to practice total health care prevention under the present health care and insurance system unless they are revamped. The present system, according to Ms. Pulliam, "deals with illness instead of wellness."

"Health insurance companies, for example will pay for mastectomies once a woman is diagnosed with cancer. This costs thousands of dollars, but they will not pay the $142 annually for mammograms that will assist in reducing breast cancer in women, thus decreasing the need for mastectomies."

The lack of access to health care was another major issue raised, and that lack of access contributes to the poor health in the black community.

Nearly 34 million Americans have no health insurance, and blacks make up a disproportionate share of that figure. According to the Heckler-Malone report, about 60,000 black people die annually because they did not receive the same care as other segments of the community.

It is also difficult to address health care in the black community without addressing the economic conditions that exist which make adequate health care unaffordable. And this factor raises the question as to whether this nation ought to be looking at a national health care program or policy. Health care costs are expected to rise to 15 percent of the gross national product by the year 2000.

The issue of a national health care program raises still more issues with black health care professionals. Some black doctors say they are being victimized by the growth of health maintenance organizations. "Patients that were your patients are forced to participate in certain programs based on their employment, and we do not get those patients back, so how we fit into a national health care system remains to be seen," said one doctor.

Implementing health care prevention and education programs is a necessity in the black community. I concur with the Heckler-Malone report that specifies, "Such programs must take place in large forums where black people gather and the black church is the most powerful and influential in the black community, and around which the black community organizes. Because black ministers are influential, their potential for serving as health education advocates is great."

I challenge health care professionals that are concerned about this growing problem to design and implement health care programs that can interface with black churches and be carried out in area schools. I also challenge those interested in the "wellness" of the black community to examine wisely the need for a national health care program.

Finally, I challenge the black community to prepare itself to participate in Maryland's future economic savior, biotechnology. This means encouraging young people to pursue life science curriculums, and entrepreneurs to identify niches for themselves.

The health of the black community is an issue because it is at a crisis state, and if our community is to grow spiritually, economically, socially and politically, we need to address this problem now. As Ms. Pulliam puts it, "Health care should be a right and not a privilege.

A letter from the editor

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