Programs combat health disparities

6/15/2010, 7:19 p.m.
  Dalton Skerritt, men’s health manager at Whittier Street Health Center, speaks with two men’s health program participants. (Photo courtesy of Whittier Street Health Center)

According to Dalton Skerritt, men’s health manager at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, “men of color in Boston are facing a serious health epidemic.” In a city where black men are three times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, the data support Skerritt’s assertion. Yet, in Skerritt’s words, “there is hope.” A lot of organizations are working together to help eliminate disparities in health for men of color.

Indeed, while black men in Boston are much more likely to die from prostate cancer, they are also more likely to have had a Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test within the past year, indicating that important prostate cancer education and screening resources are making it out into the community. Yet the large gap in mortality rate indicates that too often men of color are screened late, once the cancer has significantly progressed.

“Our goal,” says Skerritt, “is to reach men early, not only with screenings to detect diseases, but with primary care focused on behavior change and healthy lifestyles to prevent the diseases from happening in the first place.” This behavior change is critical if we are to truly eliminate disparities in health. According to a 2007 report by The Boston Foundation, our personal behaviors account for 50 percent of our health. A number of factors drive unhealthy lifestyles, including poverty, unemployment, education, culture and limited access to health education.

Obesity, a primary factor behind a number of diseases including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma and some types of cancers, is a significant health concern for the community that Whittier serves. In fact, among Boston’s neighborhoods, Roxbury has the highest rate of adult obesity.

“We track health outcomes for all of our patients, and obesity continues to be an indicator of poor health for our community,” says Halima Mohammed, Whittier’s vice president of programs and services. “Patients with a Body Mass Index over 25, which means they are overweight, are twice as likely to have diabetes and hypertension as patients with a BMI under 25.  Sixty percent of our male patients have a BMI over 25. This is a serious concern.”

Whittier works closely with these men to change behaviors, improve diet and increase exercise to prevent the onset of chronic diseases. Once in care at Whittier, patients have access to a number of services that help them grapple with these difficult lifestyle changes. Yet, as Skerritt knows, getting men into the health center is half the battle.

“It is critical for us to reach deep into the community with innovative programs to connect men of color to care,” Skerritt said. “We work hard to build trust with our community to ensure men that our care is truly ‘patient-centered.’ No matter what, the needs of our patients come first. For a community that has long been neglected and disconnected from health care, building this trust is no easy task.”