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Greenville Business Magazine

Former U.S. Surgeon General Urges Steps To Address Health Disparities

Apr 15, 2021 11:28AM ● By David Dykes

By Liv Osby

A good education and a safe place to live are as important to people’s health as good food and exercise, says former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. 

So the nation needs to change the way it thinks about health in order to improve it. 

“Poverty and drop-out rates are at least as important a health problem as smoking in the U.S.,” Benjamin said at a virtual event April 14 to discuss health disparities hosted by EngenuitySC, a nonprofit working to make the Columbia region a standout choice for top talent and companies.

“Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code,” she said. “We need to get to a place where everyone understands that almost everything we do affects health.” 

 As the nation’s 18th Surgeon General serving under President Barack Obama, Benjamin advocates for ending health disparities while promoting equity and access.

She told attendees that much of her outlook was formed as a family doctor in rural Bayou La Batre, Alabama, where poverty and lack of education helped determine the locals’ health.

To illustrate the point, she told the stories of two patients. One was a young white mother of two suffering from seizures who couldn’t read and therefore didn’t know how to take her medication. 

“It didn’t matter how many prescriptions I gave her,” Benjamin said. “We needed an adult literacy program in our community.”

The other patient was a black woman with crippling pain from a slipped disc who had health insurance through her job with the school district, but had to wait until she was paid three days later to afford the copay for the prescription. 

It was because of those two patients that Benjamin agreed to become Surgeon General when asked.

“I learned that practicing medicine wasn’t just sewing up the shark bites,” she said. “My patients had problems that my prescriptions alone could not solve, like employment opportunities and clean water.

“It was difficult to leave my patients in Bayou La Batre,” she added, “but then I realized I’d have 300 million people as my patients.”

Access to care was at the forefront when Benjamin was Surgeon General, and it is today as well, she said.

“We have to address the social determinants of health such as poverty,” she said. “And you can’t overstress the importance of an education.” 

Almost 50 percent of adults have at least one chronic health condition. But many can be prevented by focusing on a good, healthy community, Benjamin said. 

“A community that has good air quality impacts community health. If you’re living in an area where you’re walking through air pollution every day, you will never correct your asthma,” she said. 

“You can’t keep a patient’s blood pressure under control if they’re worried about putting food on the table, or worried about safety going to work,” she added. “We need a new approach to prevention in our communities, from safe highways and worksite wellness programs to clean air and healthy food.”

A more healthy and fit Midlands requires more than public education, she said. It requires a group of dedicated servant leaders to take charge – people who rise to a level of success and help other people up there with them and push them forward.

“We need more leaders like that,” she said. “And we need to encourage minorities to enter the health professions. Thirty percent of this country are minorities and less than 6 percent are physicians. And it’s the same with pharmacists, nurses and other health care professions.”

And more than ever before, Benjamin said, it’s important for those leaders to come together to create solutions for the community.

“Public health isn’t just a public health issue. It’s an economic development issue: do companies want to come to a location if diabetes, heart disease or other impacts on their health insurance will affect their bottom line?" asked Elise Partin, mayor of Cayce, S.C. and EngenuitySC board chair. 

"It’s a community development issue: do we have safe places to walk or bike for enjoyment or for getting around town? It’s an equity and equality issue: does everyone have the same access to healthcare, healthy food, and safety?”