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Looking for Ways to Address Health Disparities

Rich Egger
Dr. Sameer Vohra in the Tri States Public Radio news studio. He was the keynote speaker for Minority Health Month at WIU.

Researchers are trying to gain greater insights into why people experience different health outcomes.  A healthcare expert from Illinois believes those differences could be reduced through community coalitions.

“To address this (health disparities) as a problem, say it out loud and then work together to figure out true solutions to make all of us healthier,” said Dr. Sameer Vohra, Executive Director of the Office of Population Science and Policyat the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.  The School’s mission area spans 66 counties in central and southern Illinois and includes many counties in western Illinois. 

Vohra said society needs to think about health issues beyond just diseases and hospital care. He said factors such as wealth, education, and housing can all contribute to a person’s health. And he said a lot of it begins with the environment someone is born into.

“When the cards are stacked against you, you are in a position where you are susceptible to what is dubbed ‘adverse childhood experiences.’ In your formative years, in those first five years, you go through trauma and challenges that kind of shape the way that your brain is forming,” Vohra said.

“And those adverse childhood experiences lead to challenges on how you are able to learn (and) how your developmental progress grows.”

He said those who struggle in school when they’re young are at greater risk of engaging in risky health behaviors: smoking at an early age, drinking at an early age, and engaging in unsafe sexual practices at an early age. 

“That leads to then being sick earlier, having chronic disease – diabetes, heart disease – and ultimately earlier death,” he said.

Vohra said the Office of Population Science and Policy is working with communities to identify challenges and problems, determine the root causes of health problems, and then allow diverse viewpoints to come together to develop solutions.

“These communities are aware of their challenges. They’re far away more aware than us sometimes because we’re in Springfield.  But they want to work together to find solutions, and sort of use the Medical School’s expertise to help be a guide,” he said.

Vohra said the SIU School of Medicine was founded nearly 50 years ago with the mission of focusing on the healthcare issues facing central and southern Illinois and creating a physician workforce that could help with those healthcare needs.  He said that mission expanded over the years to also include education, clinical care, research, and service to the region’s communities, many of which are rural.

Vohra was in Macomb on April 25 to give the keynote speech for Western Illinois University’s observance of Minority Health Month.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.