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| Former public health commissioner talks racial disparities in healthcare policy

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 02:04

Former Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach spoke yesterday in Cabot Auditorium on the politics of public health policy, highlighting health disparities between racial and ethnic groups, as part of Tufts’ annual Healthy Week.

“One of the issues that always came to the top was this notion of racial and ethnic disparities,” Auerbach said. “We would just see that as we go issue after issue there was a gap between the white population and the black and Latino, and some of the Asian populations, in terms of disease, injury and premature death.”

Closing the disease gap is important in reducing illness, controlling costs and implementing healthcare reform, Auerbach said.

Auerbach also focuses on diabetes, which has been growing rapidly nationwide alongside obesity rates since the late 1970s.

“Diabetes is an illness we are particularly worried about now because its prevalence is growing so fast,” he said. “When you’ve got a chronic disease, you usually don’t see a slope like this.”

Auerbach believes the way to combat diabetes and obesity is through sociopolitical changes.

“If we can change the conditions in people’s lives so that it is just more likely that the food in their lives is more healthy ... it will reach a lot more people,” he said.

As evidence of the power policy can have on health, Auerbach pointed to Shape Up Somerville: Eat Smart. Play Hard, a recent project led by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s Associate Professor Christina Economos. Shape Up Somerville, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, got the mayor and city departments to shape policy focusing on the health of first through third graders. Auerbach said a positive effect on the health of schoolchildren could be seen within a year.

Auerbach, who was Public Health Commissioner from 2007 to 2012 and the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission for nine years, is now a professor and director of the Institute on Urban Health Research at Northeastern University.

To end the talk, Auerbach explained how the unprecedented decrease of tuberculosis since 1900 connects to our ability to take for granted that chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes can also be reduced.

“We now are in a position where we can begin to think about dramatic decreases in chronic disease,” he said, “But only if we marry the access to health care with the changing conditions of people’s lives.”

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