Detroit forum focuses on health disparities

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Detroit — Health disparities in Detroit and Wayne County were the focus of the 2015 Population Health Forum hosted Monday by the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority and Greater Detroit Area Health Council.

Speakers discussed how limited access to jobs, housing, transportation and social services has hurt health in Detroit — and what health leaders can do to address those problems.

The forum was attended by more than 200 health leaders, including medical professionals, health insurers, social workers and policy makers.

Kate Kohn-Parrott, president and CEO of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, said health won’t improve in Wayne County’s poor urban areas until social determinants of health are addressed. The council includes more than 60 organizations collaborating on how to improve health in Detroit and Wayne County.

“Health behaviors, environments, economics and poverty, education, housing and transportation — who would think those are linked to health, but they really are,” Kohn-Parrott said.

Detroit native John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California-Berkeley, talked about the importance of inclusion and belonging for physical and mental health.

“If those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to,” Powell said. “We break, we fall apart, we ache, we numb, we hurt others ... we get sick.

“If we are not connected, it has more negative consequences than obesity, smoking, high blood pressure. And yet, Americans are increasingly disconnected.”

Jonathan Heller, co-director and co-founder of Human Impact Partners, a health advocacy group based in Oakland, California, said health leaders should be involved in discussions about Michigan’s proposed sales tax increase, Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed bridge to Canada and elimination of the prevailing wage — all topics that have public health implications.

The story of James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit man who walked 21 miles round trip to his factory job in Rochester Hills each day after his car died, could have spurred policy discussions, but the opportunity was lost, Heller said.

“We came up with a very individual solution — we gave him a car. We didn’t do anything to solve the transportation problem.”