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Health Disparities Conference Targets Vulnerable Populations

About 80 health professionals from across the nation gathered on St. Thomas for the Seventh Annual Health Disparities Institute to discuss vulnerable populations that do not get sufficient access to health care.

The three-day conference organized by the Caribbean Exploratory Research Center began Wednesday at the Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef and ended Friday. Participants included doctors, nurses, policy makers and citizens interested in the issue of health disparities.

Vulnerable populations include men, the elderly, the disabled, children and women of color, according to Gloria Callwood, principal investigator and director of CERC. In addition to keynote speeches, separate sessions highlighted research on health disparities.

The conference opened with Derek Griffith’s keynote speech on men’s health. Griffith, who directs Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Research on Men’s Health, said the goal is to understand how men approach health and come up with ways to improve their access to health care.

“Men may define health more by what their bodies can do, their ability to work and their ability to be providers, more so than what blood tests and high blood pressure would look like to them,” Griffith said.

Panelist Emmanuel Graham, a urologist working on both St. Thomas and St. Croix, agreed.

“We know that on average men do not seek health care services as often as women do,” he said. “A lot of times, men tend to be more reactive as opposed to preventive for their health care.”

Men are not in the habit of visiting their doctors for routine checkups, and end up seeking help at the later stages of disease, Graham said. Common ailments men seek help for include prostate cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and sexual dysfunction.

According to Griffith, there is a lot of research into whether or not men are indeed less likely to seek health care than women, at least on a broader scale. It may only be true for individuals not displaying any symptoms, he said.

“But when you’re talking about people who have some minor symptoms, men and women tend to go to the doctor at about the same rate for similar reasons,” Griffith said.

One discussion topic that struck Griffith was on concordance — whether or not it made a difference if the health provider was of the same gender as the patient. Because of the central role women play in men’s health, men tend to have more experience showing vulnerability with women than with other men, Griffith said, making gender less of a factor.

Callwood said one of the sessions was specifically dedicated to concept-mapping and designing interventions for men in the community.

The conference also focused on the disabled and the elderly who lack sufficient access to health care, especially in the territory. The terrain makes it especially challenging for these populations to get to the doctor, according to Callwood.

For those who need constant care, the burden of care falls on family members because the territory’s assisted living facilities are not on the same level as those of other communities in the country, Callwood said.

Participants also talked about linguistic and cultural differences that could hinder health information from reaching patients effectively. Even interaction between patient and physician can be rendered less effective by language and culture barriers.

“Sometimes, people go to physicians when their health care providers leave, and really are confused about what was said to them,” Callwood said.

As for health disparities among women of color, Callwood said that while it is not so evident in the Virgin Islands, it continues to be a problem in other parts of the country.

There is no research requirement for participants after they leave the conference, according to Callwood, but they are encouraged to educate their communities on the existing inequalities in health care access.

“We want to raise awareness, and if our participants go out and are able to do that, I think that would have accomplished part of our goal,” Callwood said.

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