Health disparity is not about health care. It's about social justice.
UB scientist Timothy Murphy explains a longterm initiative that hopes to make an impact in Buffalo
Courtesy of UB
Timothy F. Murphy, MD, is an infectious diseases physician scientist, a SUNY Distinguished Professor, director of the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and Senior Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Research at the
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. In our second interview with Murphy, we talk to him about the health disparities in Western New York that make the African American community significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19, and how this unacceptable inequity can be addressed.
When did you really start to focus on this problem? Was there a particular incident or reason that it began to be a priority for you?
The most influential experience for me occurred in 2015. In my role as Director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which has a vision to perform research to improve health and reduce health disparities in our community and the nation, I began attending and participating in the monthly meetings of the African American Health Equity Task Force. Led by local pastors and community leaders, the Task Force has made significant progress in bringing awareness about the tremendous disparities in health outcomes of African American communities in Buffalo. Remarkably, life expectancies of African Americans, who make up thirty-nine percent of Buffalo residents, are twelve years shorter compared to that of white residents of Buffalo. This reality, and the innovative ideas and commitment of the Task Force in working toward solving this huge problem inspired me to commit my efforts to this critical problem in our community.
Rev. George Nicholas is a member of the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute. Watch a video about it here.
Some of the reasons that the minority communities are being hit hard have been made more public recently—things like poverty, preexisting conditions, lack of access to health care. Can you add to these or expand on them?
It is not a surprise that minority communities in Buffalo are suffering worse outcomes than the general population. People with underlying disorders, including heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and other conditions experience more serious disease and have a higher death rate. These same underlying disorders are more common in the seven zip codes in Buffalo with high rates of poverty and minority populations. These underlying disorders are a direct result of what we call the social determinants of health, which include poverty, underdeveloped neighborhoods, failing schools, high unemployment, low property values, poor access to healthy food, lead contamination in homes, and poor access to healthcare. These are the main reasons for worse outcomes of COVID-19 in African Americans in our community and similar communities throughout the nation.
Tell us a bit about the research institute that UB recently launched to study these problems?
The UB Community Health Equity Research Institute grew from the work of the African American Health Equity Task Force. Ironically, most of the social determinants of health are unrelated to healthcare. In fact, it is estimated that healthcare accounts for only ten to twenty percent of health disparities. It’s poverty, housing, access to nutrition, education and neighborhoods among other systemic problems. That’s why our Research Institute will include faculty from all twelve UB schools—we will need a multidisciplinary, broad-based approach to understand root causes and to develop and test innovative solutions. We need new ideas. We can’t just keep doing the same thing. That’s not working.
What has been your work so far? What do you hope to accomplish going forward?
The key to the success of our institute is a bidirectional dialogue with our community partners. That has been and will continue to be our approach. We have ambitious goals for our research to have a true impact on the conditions and health outcomes in the community. That will be the true measure of success of the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute.
One example of our collaboration was been two enormously successful community-based conferences on health disparities that were planned and conducted by the African American Health Equity Task Force in partnership with UB faculty who have been part of the Task Force and hosted in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The Igniting Hope conferences were held in 2018 and 2019 in response to a need for community dialogue to focus research and advocacy on the root causes of minority health disparities in WNY. The conferences were supported by funding from a wide range of community and university contributors. National leaders in health disparities research spoke at the conferences, which each attracted over 300 people. Multiple outcomes were realized from the meetings, including the formation of eight coalitions on topics like mental health, nutrition, policing, wealth building and others. These groups are meeting regularly and conducting projects and initiatives.
Immediate goals of the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute are to create partnerships among researchers from different fields who traditionally often don’t work together. The most innovative solutions will come from new ways of thinking about these problems by bringing together experts with different perspectives. We will be advancing toward a sustained source of funding for the work of the Institute, for example from the National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others funding sources.
Do you have suggestions of what could be done right now to address the higher incidence of COVID among these communities?
In addition to experiencing worse outcomes from infection, African American communities also have a higher rate of infection because many people in these communities perform essential jobs and are not able to work remotely. Thus, exposure to the virus is greater, resulting in more disease.
The UB Institute and the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, a community-based group that also came from the work of the Task Force, developed a broad outline of a strategic plan to mitigate the immediate impact of the pandemic. The plan has four broad elements, including strategic and widespread testing for the virus in communities of color, actively reaching out to community members to assess and provide health needs and social service needs, ensuring food security, and replacing lost wages. A committed group of community groups, university faculty and students and community foundations are implementing many parts of the plan. communities of color with high rates of poverty are vulnerable communities. Achieving health equity means providing precisely what the community needs to mitigate the adverse impact of the virus.
Spree thanks Dr. Murphy for finding the time to answer our questioins. To learn more about him and his work, follow the links given at the beginning of this interview.