SPRINGFIELD — During a press conference in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it often results in physical death.”
In 1998 President Bill Clinton said, “We cannot tolerate health disparities based on socioeconomics.”
Nearly 20 years later, health officials across the country continue to meet to discuss the inequalities in health for minorities and those living in poverty.
“We have made progress, but there is much more progress we need to make,” said Helen Caulton-Harris, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services for the city of Springfield.
Caulton-Harris was one of several speakers at a community forum held Tuesday at the Community Music School of Springfield on State Street titled, “A more hopeful and equitable Springfield.”
Organized by Read! Reading Success by 4th Grade, Baystate Health and Partners for a Healthier Community Inc., the forum addressed the critical relationship between social determinants of health and health equity, including the nation’s best practices to ensure health equity.
Jessica Collins, executive director of Partners for a Healthier Community, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, said studies conducted in Springfield over the past several years show some painful trends, as well as some positive things the city is doing to decrease health problems in children, increase access to healthy food and more.
Speaking to a group of health care providers, human services employees and others hoping to tackle the issues of health equity for the city’s children and poorest families, Collins highlighted some of the positive things, from Springfield spending $75,000 last year in green cleaning products for most of its public facilities, to a study that showed 83 percent of eighth graders in the city have never tried to smoke a cigarette.
Still, Springfield has many hurdles to overcome, Collins said.
The eighth-grade study also revealed that 48 percent of students surveyed said they had not had a fresh fruit or vegetable the day before they answered the survey. Of that 48 percent, half of the students were Latino.
One study showed only 38 percent of residents in the city felt they had access to fresh, affordable produce.
Another study conducted by the agency found that 20 percent of Springfield children suffer from asthma, with the largest portion being Latino children between the ages of 0 and 14, followed by African-American children.
Talking about their struggles and successes with health equity at a national level were Ralph Smith, the managing director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading and Dr. Dayna Long, the founder and co-medical director of the Family Information and Navigation Desk and a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California.
Long said she works with a diverse population of children and has observed many things about their ability to thrive.
“When kids are exposed to stress and adversity they shift their attention from learning how to pick up language to, ‘How do I survive?'” Long said. “We see impulsivity and we see an inability to focus and concentrate because kids are trying to survive.”
After more than 20 years as a physician, Long said the tools she learned in medical school to make kids better were not working in an urban setting.
Long launched a program called Too Small to Fail, which looked at how to make Oakland a “literate rich” city with children who were developmentally ready for school, she said.
Hospitals and doctors joined with community leaders, business owners and philanthropists to launch a campaign to make parents aware of the importance of talking, reading and singing to their child from birth. After the information was distributed through the community, Long and her team went back to parents to see what they had learned.
“We found that parents felt that by talking, singing and reading to their children it promoted resiliency and bonding….Their child was happier, they talked more, their vocabulary increased. Their child smiled more and they felt their child was more attached to them,” she said. “Those are the intangible pieces that help to build resilience, so that in the face of significant adversity kids can remain strong.”
For more information on the work being done locally to achieve health equity, visit Partners for a Healthier Community.