The University of Maryland School of Medicine has created a center to examine the relationship between deadly diseases and racial and socioeconomic disparities.
School officials recently announced the creation of the Center for Health Disparities, which will target diseases such as cancer, diabetes and glaucoma that disproportionately affect minorities and low-income patients.
With the help of community health officials in Maryland, the center will coordinate patient care, research, education and outreach initiatives, officials said. About $10 million in grants from various organizations -- such as the National Institutes of Health and the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund, which comes from tobacco settlement money -- will finance the effort, Claudia Baquet said. She is director of the new center and associate dean for policy and planning at the medical school.
"There's such an increased interest both in the communities of Maryland and the faculty in the School of Medicine that it became apparent that we needed to provide the structure to coordinate this," Baquet said.
Driving the initiative is a University of Maryland health survey of more than 5,000 adults in the city of Baltimore and 12 counties in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore that showed significant differences in the health-care behavior and views of whites and minorities and among people of different economic classes.
Whites, blacks and members of other racial and ethnic groups participated in the survey. Seventy-two percent of the survey's respondents said they had never been screened for oral cancer. For the African Americans surveyed, the percentage was much higher -- 86 percent.
Eighty percent of African Americans, compared with half of the whites surveyed, were unfamiliar with clinical trials -- research studies that test new treatments and prevention methods. "Our approach is to empower the general public about cancer screening and trials," Baquet said.
Of those reporting they were uninsured, 48 percent said they could not see a doctor when they needed to at least once in the past year because of the cost.
Even those with insurance said they did not always seek health care when needed. Seven percent of those insured through work and 13 percent of those who were self-insured reported that they did not get medical help because of cost concerns.
"It's a lack of access or adequate health insurance, but even when people are insured sometimes they can't navigate the system, so part of it is education," Baquet said.
There were also geographic differences. In Western Maryland, 5 percent of the adults surveyed said they use smokeless tobacco, above the national average of 3 percent. The survey indicated smokeless tobacco use of 0.6 percent in Baltimore City and 1.5 percent on the Eastern Shore.
Baquet said it has taken about four years to get the center started as medical school officials have worked to persuade local communities to join the effort.
That meant "going into the community as a partner not as an institution that dictates to the community what the needs are. . . . We've been doing so much community education in those three geographical areas and in Southern Maryland that the trust has been built," she said.
The center's efforts include steering medical students to rural and underserved areas, promoting cancer screening, providing patients with information about clinical trials for treatment and retraining practicing health care professionals.