County works to address health needs of minorities

Program promotes sensitivity to culture

September 30, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Felisa McCall's job as the new Anne Arundel County minority health director is all about cultural nuances and how they can sometimes stand in the way of getting certain health care programs to communities that need them.

For example, McCall knows that African-American men are less likely than members of other ethnic groups to get regular prostate exams because they put off visits to the doctor's office. And she's learned recently that some Korean-American women start smoking in this country because it was forbidden in their homeland.

"We have to be sensitive to the values of different communities," said McCall, who has headed up the county's Minority Health Initiative since June. Previously, she worked for the Red Cross, identifying African-American bone marrow donors in the Washington area.

McCall's arrival and the launch of the new initiative have stirred hope in minority communities that their health care concerns will finally be addressed.

Minority health programs have existed in the county for many years, but no one had ever been given the job of working with and educating minority populations, community leaders said.

Money to fund the Minority Health Initiative and pay the salaries of McCall and two staff members was made available from the Cigarette Restitution Fund, which was set up in 1999 after a settlement between a group of 46 states, including Maryland, and the tobacco industry.

This year, the fund has distributed $102.5 million statewide to fight cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses, and to establish programs including smoking-cessation assistance and crop-conversion initiatives for tobacco farmers.

Maryland, like many other states, has been slow to realize that minority communities have distinct health care needs, said Naomi Corbin Booker, minority outreach and technical assistance coordinator with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"The first national effort to look at the health of the citizens of this country at a more refined level that allowed data to be accumulated on minorities was in 1985," she said. "Since then there has been an increase in the cultural competency of public health departments."

No other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area has an officer for minority health, although Howard and Baltimore counties are in the process of hiring employees to work with minority groups.

Baltimore City, where African-Americans make up about 65 percent of the population, has no minority health officer. And counties such as Carroll and Harford have such small minority populations that a minority health officer isn't a pressing need, officials for those counties said.

In Anne Arundel County, where minority populations have grown significantly during the past decade, health officials thought it best to step up outreach and education efforts. "Anne Arundel County has a reputation for being very progressive," said Evelyn Stein, the county's divisional director for health information and promotion. "This is a really exciting opportunity for us."

A $2.25 million grant from the Cigarette Restitution Fund to the county Department of Health made the funding possible, although not all of the money will be used by the Minority Health Initiative, said Stein.

"We have been waiting for kind of a long time for the county to reach out to us," said Kap Young Park, vice president of the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Foundation of Maryland Inc. and an Anne Arundel County business owner who is working with the Health Department. "We see this as a first step."

And so does McCall. She plans to build a network of minority groups to help distribute information about cancer and its prevention, to publicize the risks of tobacco use and to help residents quit smoking.

She is planning a minority health summit in Annapolis for November and a mentoring and scholarship program to encourage minorities to pursue careers in medicine. She and her staff are setting up cultural sensitivity training classes for medical professionals so they will be better able to serve minority groups.

Some African-Americans put off visiting a doctor's office for fear of what they will hear, said Willie L. Doolittle, executive director of RESPECT, a coalition of black organizations and institutions that recently received a $110,000 grant from the county as part of the initiative's mission to team up with community groups to end tobacco-related deaths and to publicize the need for colorectal examinations.

Economic distress also prevents many residents from receiving adequate care, Doolittle said.

"I grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas," she said. "[Parents] would take you to the doctor's office when you were near to dying. Instead, people depended on home remedies."

McCall intends to change that. She wants 2,000 people or more to attend the health summit.

"We want to bring the community together to talk about the county's health services and the entire health system that exists here," she said. "We want to find out from participants some ways we can help them."

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