The future of overall health for Americans will be determined in large part by how effectively health organizations and communities address the complex issues that contribute to a persistent gap among minority ethnic and racial populations. Often driven by cultural, social, environmental, community and individual factors, these disparities account for a disproportionate burden of disease, disability and death for a sizeable portion of the U.S. population.
Reconciling health disparities that fall along racial or ethnic lines requires a dedicated effort to unite, educate and empower members of communities that are most heavily impacted. Administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) is a national program aimed at achieving health equity. Driven by the philosophy that every individual deserves the chance to attain his or her full health potential, REACH partners with various organizations that implement community-based programs and culturally tailored interventions serving African Americans, American Indians, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders.
Through initiatives at the community level, REACH partners work to identify, develop and share evidence- or practice-based strategies to address a range of high-priority health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, infant mortality, asthma, immunization, obesity and breast and cervical cancers. Through these partnerships, communities served by REACH have demonstrated health and behavior-related improvements connected to these issues.
For example, efforts to engage and educate Latino communities across New England have helped eliminate health disparities related to cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. As a result, Latino patients within REACH-supported health care systems took steps to significantly improve cholesterol levels, with nearly 72 percent of patients with diabetes reducing their total cholesterol to below 200mg/dL.
REACH programs are designed to empower their audiences, operating under the premise that education and access to resources are what best inspire changed behaviors and create internal momentum towards change within disadvantaged communities. A hallmark of an effective program is the newfound ability for a community to self-lead.
Nicolette Warren, MS, MCHES of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), recalls when two local SOPHE chapters launched a REACH-supported diabetes prevention program.
“The communities were looking toward us, asking us what to do,’” Warren said.
Two years later, she says, there was a noticeable shift in attitude. “What we’re finding is that the (SOPHE) chapters are no longer being the lead organization. It’s really the community groups and their leaders who are saying, ‘this is what we want to do. We want you to help us identify evidence-based and best-practice strategies.”
Equally important, REACH programs take care to understand the unique concerns that are most meaningful to members of a specific ethnic or racial community. Program leaders say they see the best results when they align messaging with issues that audiences already care about.
REACH program leader, LCDR Karen Hearod recounts how her team used survey information to craft their messaging to promote cardiovascular health among members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Survey results showed that the community was more interested in topics related to methamphetamine use than in cardiovascular health. Hearod’s team used that knowledge to create a presentation that addressed the impact of methamphetamine and general substance abuse on cardiovascular health.
“They really felt like we were talking about what they wanted to talk about,” Hearod said. “Through that, we were successful in getting across our heart-health message.”
REACH continues to cultivate partnerships within local communities to more effectively impact populations most vulnerable to health disparities. These partnerships remain vital to actively addressing the complex range of evolving issues related to the health of Americans.