Whitney Bowman-Zatzkin

Just before the holidays, the National Institutes of Health hosted the 2012 Summit on the Science of Eliminating Disparities, convening a series of discussions on innovative solutions building on the national momentum to address the social determinants of health. Throughout the three-day event, panelists and speakers offered lists of victories to celebrate the changing atmosphere as the nation unites to eliminate health disparities.

Former Congressman Louis Stokes was honored with the dedication of his official portrait for the Stokes Laboratories at the NIH. Speakers ranged from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health to former US Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, and current US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. Presentations spread from insightful dialogs from the Baltimore City Health Department’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, on the discovered correlation of the number of liquor store licenses, crime rates, and poor public health ratings and its Healthy Baltimore 2015 initiative to an international comparative analysis panel discussing the success and eradication of population-specific health disparities in Canada, Brazil, South Africa and other nations through data discovery and the creation of innovative programs to improve health.

One of the steadiest drumbeats across all presentations was the quest for increased data and standardized data collection practices to help examine the scope of health disparities in the United States and abroad.

Originally created in 1986, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH) was reauthorized by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the Office holds a firm responsibility in the area of data collection practices regarding the social determinants of health. Dedicated to the reduction of health disparities and the creation of minority health programs in the US, the OMH also offers funding to state offices of minority health, multiple local organizations and health centers and serves as the hub for the representation of health disparities concerns across every branch of HHS. Since its reauthorization, OMH has also taken its agenda to the HHS Action Plan and established a National Stakeholder Strategy building the commitment to the reduction and elimination of health disparities.

In its first year, OMH staff dedicated themselves to establish a baseline of data collection standards for Race, Ethnicity, Sex, Primary language, and Disability status as charged to the office through Section 4302 of the Affordable Care Act. Finalized in October 2011, the standards apply to all major population health surveys sponsored by HHS and build a repository of demographic details to assist researchers in identifying the causes of health inequities. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has also pushed for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) data collection standards in 2013.

The OMH standardized questions are available for public use in any survey and data collection activities and the hope is that the standardization of these critical data points will improve the analysis of key patient populations to determine new solutions for unique health challenges that may drive poorer health outcomes.

We are still far from the elimination of US health disparities but these standards energize scientists with the awareness that improved data will drive improved strategy. Most importantly, it carves the way for the elimination of health disparities to be an achievable goal for the US health system.

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