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Conference confronts narrowing disparity of health care in urban areas

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From left, Leslie Kantor, Shereef Elnahal, Lt. Gov. Shelia Oliver and Perry Halkitis.
From left, Leslie Kantor, Shereef Elnahal, Lt. Gov. Shelia Oliver and Perry Halkitis. - ()

Urban residents confront health issues that are multifaceted, complex and oftentimes unique. That was the major takeaway from a conference entitled “Topics in Urban Health: News Findings & Approaches” held at the Robeson Student Center at the Rutgers University School of Public Health in Newark.

Among the speakers at Thursday’s event were Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, Shereef Elnahal, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Health; Leslie Cantor, chair, Department of Urban-Global Public Health, Rutgers School of Public Health; and Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health.

Elnahal told attendees his department is focused on increasing access to care and support services to help city residents improve their maternal and child health.

“The reduction of disparities across racial and ethnic groups, as well as geographic areas in the state, is a key priority of the Murphy administration,” he said. “We are committed to increasing access to care to reduce health inequities across the state.”

He said one area of particular concern is infant mortality, and pointed to statistics on black mothers and infants he called “shocking.”

According to Elnahal, black moms in New Jersey are almost four times more likely to die of a maternal-related cause than whites. He also noted for the last 25 years, the infant mortality rate for black infants has been more than three times that of whites, with the highest incidence occurring in urban areas.

“The reduction of disparities across racial and ethnic groups, as well as geographic areas in the state, is a key priority of the Murphy administration.”

- Shereef Elnahal, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Health

He said that the problem can be linked to mental health, distress and a lack of access to prenatal care. Lead exposure, he said, was also a factor.

Elnahal said the health department has amended its rules to require local health agencies to intervene earlier when a child is identified with an elevated blood-lead level of five or more micrograms per deciliter.

In addition, the department awarded 24 local health agencies $8.2 million to do lead testing and environmental interventions, hire staff and provide case management services.

Regarding sexually transmitted diseases, minority communities in the state also are disproportionately affected, Elnahal said.

While blacks comprise 15 percent of the state’s total population, they represent 5 percent of those currently living with HIV/AIDS.

As a result, Elnahal said, the health department focuses many of its testing and treatment resources on urban areas, funding agencies in the inner cities for HIV/AIDS prevention, education, care and treatment.

“We recognize that these are the areas where we may have the greatest impact,” he said. “Many of these areas have local health departments that are active in conducting disease investigation follow-up and outreach to their communities.”

Oliver offered attendees a chronology dating back to the 1960s when black physicians were unable to practice in the region’s hospitals.

“Establishing the old [University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey] … was important to this community because we viewed it as a way to begin to equalize health care delivery,” she told NJBIZ. “As a result, many of the graduates of this school established practices, got involved in civic engagement and helped narrow down that system of disparity in health care.”

Oliver said it’s vital for medical schools and allied health schools to be supported and form strong relationships with Federally Qualified Health Centers.

“You heard the commissioner talk about how infant mortality, substance abuse and addiction are still issues that we have to grapple with, along with diabetes, mental health, asthmatic and respiratory diseases. These are the things we have to tackle.”

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Anthony Vecchione

Anthony Vecchione covers health care for NJBIZ. You can contact him at: Avecchione@njbiz.com.

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