GRAAHI executive director discusses racial health disparities at “Lunch & Learn” event

Dylan Grosser

In the U.S., not every person is able to receive the same quality of health care. In addition to that, not every person is at a societal or income level where they are able to maintain and afford a healthy lifestyle. A person’s health care is not solely determined by their choice in lifestyle but rather depends on many other factors not always in their control, such as socioeconomic status, education, their environment and their culture.

To discuss the health disparities people of different racial backgrounds face, Shannon Wilson, the executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI), spoke to a group of Grand Valley State University health care students during a “Lunch and Learn” event in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences Tuesday, March 14.

In her lecture, Wilson explained the ways individuals who live in the “urban core” in communities are more likely to suffer from health care disparities than those in more affluent neighborhoods. She said her institute aims to help provide health care to West Michigan residents without race being a factor, despite it being one in many cases. She said African-Americans and Hispanics experience 30 to 40 percent poorer health outcomes than white Americans.

Wilson said the “out of business” goal of the GRAAHI is to have a health care system where race is not a factor.

“If I could get that, then there would be no reason to have a GRAAHI,” Wilson said. “I could put myself out of business. I think as a non-profit, that should always be your goal.”

In regard to socioeconomic status, Wilson said many people who are dependent on food pantries to feed their families are stuck with the reality of only being able to provide unhealthy, non-perishable foods that are found in those food pantries. The encroachment of cheap fast-food restaurants on low-income areas is another factor that leads to less healthy lifestyles, as the price for healthier alternatives goes up.

“It’s not that they don’t want to (be healthy),” Wilson said. “Some of it is an access issue. It’s a really complicated conversation that gets massed into something really simple like ‘Oh, they just don’t eat healthy.’”
While many people may not be turned away because of race at the doctor’s office, many people are turned away by the type of insurance they have (e.g., if they are on Medicaid).

“And that’s really based on the cost structure of Medicaid, but we know there are going to be more minorities represented in Medicaid than in traditional markets,” Wilson said.

Books have been written on the social determinants of health and how sometimes having a difference zip code can affect a person’s health outcomes. Brenda Pawl, the director of the Interprofessional Education Office in the GVSU Office of the Vice Provost for Health, helped to organize the “Lunch and Learn” session under the Midwest Interprofessional Practice, Education and Research Center (MIPERC).

She said Wilson coming to speak to students helped promote common philosophies between MIPERC and GRAAHI.

“We all need to have that shared mission, shared values, especially when you’re providing care to patients,” Pawl said. “You need to have a collaborative plan of care.”