U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher talks to Northwestern students on Chicago campus

Susan Du

If health disparities had been eradicated in the last century, 84,500 African American lives could have been saved, the 16th Surgeon General of the United States said Thursday night. Speaking at the Feinberg School of Medicine’s 2010 John H. Hollister Lecture, David Satcher sought to reach out to potential leaders in the medical field.

“In order to eliminate disparities in health, we need leaders who care enough, know enough, will do enough and are persistent enough,” Satcher said.

As head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Satcher’s initiative to reduce inequalities in health care was incorporated as one of the two main goals in Healthy People 2010, a government framework for national health objectives.

“Dr. Satcher was chosen as the John H. Hollister Lecturer and Visiting Professor of Minority Health because he is a leader in the area of health disparities, and his mission is to make public health work for all groups in America.,” said Arlene Hankinson, the event’s organizer.

Hankinson noted Satcher’s visit to Northwestern is particularly relevant because of the community’s inequalities. Chicago has experienced widening disparities in several indicators of health status between black and whites from 1990-2005, according to a 2010 study from the Sinai Urban Health Institute. These indicators include heart disease, cancer and stroke mortality.

Third-year Feinberg student Bruce Henschen attended the lecture to hear about the reality of health disparities – a moral, social and political issue, he said.

“It’s important in understanding public health and therefore the health of individuals,” Henschen said.

In his lecture, Satcher highlighted the efforts of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and Center of Excellence on Health Disparities. The institute trains future leaders in public health policy. Its mission is “to develop a diverse group of exceptional health leaders, advance and support comprehensive health system strategies and actively promote policies and practices that will reduce and ultimately eliminate disparities in health,” Satcher said.

He tied the story of the institute to the issue of global health equity as it stands today.

“The need for leaders today is truly great.… To eliminate disparities in health, we’re going to transform communities,” Satcher said.

If leaders were only born and not made, he joked, there would be a lot of people out there who aren’t doing what they were born to do.

Satcher then explained how health is mainly contingent upon lifestyle choices, and the choices people make are influenced by their childhood experiences. Poverty and the lack of basic community resources, such as playgrounds and grocery stores, in inner-city neighborhoods can determine the course of people’s lives and the quality of their health from childhood onward.

Henschen agreed individual health depends upon access to those facilities.

“The point of the lecture was that everyone needs access to health, not just health insurance or visits to the clinic,” he said. “I could help maybe one person at a time in a clinic, but I could help a hundred people by putting a grocery store in a neighborhood or making vaccinations available to communities.”

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