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Vol. LXI, No. 1
January 9, 2009

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Angelou Brings Art to Science Summit
Health Disparities Gets Intramural Research Component

On the front page...

A jazz scat segued seamlessly into a Deep River blues riff. African proverbs wound naturally into Croatian travel tales. Rhythmic lines from Langston Hughes flowed effortlessly into her own stream of consciousness stanzas. It was just Dr. Maya Angelou doing what she does—this time for the sake of health and medical research, and for the inspiration and edification of about 4,400 attendees at “NIH Summit: The Science of Eliminating Health Disparities” held Dec. 16-18 at the Gaylord Convention Center, National Harbor, Md.

“When I thought about all the people you touch by the work you do, I thought I would commend you and thank you in their names—for all of the people whose faces you’ll never see and whose names you’ll never hear—because of your commitment to the idea of equity in medical care for everyone,” Angelou said. “I think we can move beyond disparity—because I look at the world, at everything, as if it is a half-filled glass. I think the word disparity puts the weight on the already encumbered. I think if I look at it as ‘equity,’ I have a diffrent image. [I see] more emphasis on opportunity, on seeking, with more resolve, more hope.”


  Dr. Maya Angelou addresses health equity summit.  
  Dr. Maya Angelou addresses health equity summit.  

Different Perspectives, Common Purpose

Dedicated to the late former U.S. Congressman Paul Rogers (D-FL), also known as “Mr. Health” for his support of medical research and his advocacy for increasing NIH funding, the summit was coordinated by NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Keynote speakers, plenary and break-out sessions, an exhibit hall and scientific poster sessions were featured daily.

In keeping with the summit’s emphasis on science, practice and policy, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and former Vermont governor Dr. Howard Dean addressed the assembly on day two. Day three closed the summit with a town meeting on health care reform; ideas will be submitted to President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

The event gathered people from across the nation and beyond who can attack health gaps from myriad angles: biomedical scientists and research administrators, public health commissioners and community health care providers, diplomats from the embassies of Botswana, China, France, India and Peru and university professors and deans from tribal colleges—all with a shared goal.
NCI’s Dr. Robert Croyle, who directs the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow
From Left: Former Surgeon General David Satcher, NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin and Congressman Elijah Cummings discuss health equity issues at the summit.

"You come with unique perspectives, strategies, experiences from different backgrounds, disciplines, communities and countries but you come with a common vision that we can and one day we will eliminate health disparities,” said NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin, opening the 3-day meeting. “Today, health disparities is a vibrant part of research…stronger than it has ever been. We’re making scientific progress. Our communities are now engaged in research. No longer is it just the traditional academic scientists. Community and faith-based groups are on board.”

Former Vermont governor

Former Vermont governor
Dr. Howard Dean addresses
the assembly.

Acting NIH director Dr. Raynard Kington announced perhaps the biggest news on day one: NCMHD will now have an intramural research component.

”The NCMHD intramural research program will conduct state-of-the-art research focusing on the links between biological and nonbiological determinants of health,” he said. “It will create training and mentorship opportunities…it will contribute a pool of early-stage and seasoned investigators that will enhance the diversity of scientists and research disciplines comprising the intramural research program at NIH. As we look forward to a future in which everyone in this nation has the same likelihood of a healthy and long life, we can be confident that the NCMHD intramural research program will contribute significantly toward creating that future.”
Former acting surgeon general Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu
Dr. Robert Valdez of the University of New Mexico

Former acting surgeon general Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, who is now with Johnson & Johnson, and Dr. Robert Valdez of the University of New Mexico give keynotes at the summit.

New Times, New Tools

Kington put the pursuit of health equity in historical context, contrasting the field’s current status with its humble origins circa 1896. “We now have at our disposal more nimble and nuanced methods for studying health dispari-ties and for understanding their causes,” he said, recalling that scholar and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois is often credited with pointing out the differences in health status among black and white citizens in the late 19th century.
Maya Angelou punctuates her remarks with laughter
Angelou, for whom the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest University School of Medicine is named, punctuates her remarks with laughter.

“We have expanded the scope of policy studies,” Kington continued. “We are supported in our efforts by institutions such as NCMHD that embody our resolve and give it voice and direction…The very popularity of this summit, the convergence of people and institutions it has affected, allows us to believe that we are finally in a position to move forward with science policy and practice of eliminating health disparities in a way that would have made DuBois proud.” Honored guests seated on the stage at the summit included former Surgeon General David Satcher (who also moderated a summit forum on HD, science and policy); former HHS secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan; and two former NIH directors, Drs. Bernadine Healy and Harold Varmus. All four were recognized for their distinct roles in creating NCMHD and their early acknowledgment of the importance of research on gaps in health status.

Lessons Learned

Now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Varmus talked about lessons he’s learned since leaving NIH and helping start a community cancer clinic in an inner-city environment. Noting the poorer outcomes, lower life expectancy and greater disease burden among blacks and Hispanics in Harlem, he said, “I urge all of you who are coming to New york to pay a visit to [Ralph Lauren Cancer Care and Prevention Center] and learn some of the realities of trying to practice health disparities care and research in a disadvantaged community. Learn about the difficulties in getting state funding for reimbursement for such activities and the cultural difficulties of educating and getting the participation of the surrounding communities that are so much in need.”

Clayton Old Elk of the Indian Health Service greets Dr. Dorothy Height
Former NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus
Former NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus and Dr. Bernadine Healy
At left, Clayton Old Elk of the Indian Health Service greets Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. Above, former NIH directors Dr. Harold Varmus and Dr. Bernadine Healy are recognized for their early recognition of the need to study health gaps among minority and underserved populations. The summit brought together more than 4,400 participants and included plenary talks as well as workshops and a scientific poster and exhibit session.

Varmus also called attention to gaps in health around the world. He said recently released results of an Institute of Medicine study show imbalances in health globally. Varmus challenged summit attendees to support IOM’s efforts to help improve health internationally.

“These are exciting times,” Ruffin concluded. “We’re at a turning point as a nation and a global community when there is profound momentum around health disparities, but we cannot become complacent…Our approach to health disparities cannot be static. We must continue to challenge ourselves, to take new bold steps through bona fide solutions. It is time for us to chart a new course for health disparities. For that reason, the intersection and integration of science, practice and policy is the theme of the summit…The elimination of health disparities will indeed take leadership. It will take vision, it will take creativity. It will take passion and most of all, it will take partnership.”

Some video highlights of the summit are archived at NIHRecord Icon

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