When I was a child, three of my most treasured mentors were African American women. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Lewis were my fifth- and sixth-grade teachers at Steadman Elementary school in Denver's Park Hill Neighborhood. Ms. Springfield was my dance teacher from the time I was four until I graduated from high school. These women embodied all things great mentors embody. They showed unconditional caring, but clearly communicated their high expectations. They were funny and playful and yet knew how to control a class full of riled up kids. They were a gift to every child they taught.
I did not know at the time that, all things being equal, if these women of color were diagnosed with breast cancer they would be nearly twice as likely to die from the disease as a white woman. Had I known that as I child I am sure I would have wondered-how could this be true? And, how could it be fair?
To be honest, even as an adult I still have those questions. Although now it is my job to seek the answers and solutions, as I've dedicated my professional life to improving health, particularly for those whose needs are not well met by our current system.
I believe addressing inequities in health is one of the great challenges we have in our health care system. The data is clear: gaps in health exist among different racial and ethnic groups in Colorado, between low-income and high-income Coloradans, among residents living in suburban, urban and rural communities, and even between women and men.
Colorado is lucky to have many groups working to improve the health of diverse populations in our state. Unfortunately though, the Office of Health Disparities at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded in a 2009 report that, despite increased attention to health disparities at the national, state and community levels, relatively little progress has been made to eliminate them.
One thing we need to do to move forward is embed discussions about eliminating inequities in our health care system in every conversation we have about improving our state's health. I am encouraged that the conversation is gaining momentum. The theme of the Colorado Health Foundation's July Health Symposium, arguably the largest statewide health conference, is Health Equity: Bridging the Divides. I am hopeful that we can continue to build on this growing dialogue because there is no time to waste. There are too many amazing Coloradans that should have the opportunity to maximize their health and, like Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Lewis, and Ms. Springfield, share their gifts with the world.