Healthy outreach

December 19, 2004

THE MODEL dates back at least a century when visiting nurses, going into neighborhood homes, started what has evolved into community health outreach. Last week, the Eric Davis Foundation announced a three-year effort to get the word out about health issues to black communities in Baltimore by enlisting black ministers. The new program was motivated, in part, by the former Oriole star's own health struggles, particularly a bout with colon cancer that he survived. The foundation has also received support from St. Agnes Hospital and several local organizations focused on health disparities in minority communities.

The Davis Foundation points to studies showing that blacks are more likely to develop cancer and have the highest cancer death rate of any racial or ethnic group. It also notes that at least 2.7 million blacks have diabetes and that they are four times more likely to experience kidney failure than whites with diabetes. Blacks, particularly women, also suffer disproportionally from obesity.

Some of these disparities could be alleviated, at the least, through education, early screenings and regular check-ups. Yet many blacks don't readily or easily seek medical help. Health experts note that people who are "medically disenfranchised" or "medically indigent" often have to overcome hostility or reluctance to deal with the medical establishment. There are scores of community outreach efforts across the country that increase the comfort level of the medically disenfranchised, leading them to seek earlier detection and treatment. Many of these grass-roots outreach efforts use intermediaries who are familiar with various cultural dynamics and can bridge the gap between resistant minority and immigrant communities, and health professionals.

That's the approach being taken by the Davis Foundation, which has commitments from about 70 ministers who have agreed to become part of a Pastors' Health Network that will become better educated about disparities and other health issues affecting the black community. Participating pastors are expected to emphasize wellness, prevention and early detection and treatment of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer.

It would also be a great service if this program were to encourage more pastors to speak up about HIV/AIDS and the enormous toll it continues to take on the black community. But the ultimate goal is to encourage parishioners to take control of their own health.

It's too soon to know how successful the Davis Foundation will be -- it plans to go national next year, launching a similar program in Atlanta -- or how it will stack up against similar efforts. But it's a worthwhile endeavor.

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