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Health Event Is All Relative

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National health officials are encouraging racial minorities to go see a health care professional on Sept. 16 -- and to take a loved one along.

This is the second year for ''Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day,'' an initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services' Closing the Health Gap campaign. It seeks to eliminate health disparities between whites and minorities. Radio host Tom Joyner, whose nationally syndicated talk show reaches 17 million listeners a week on the 240 stations of ABC Radio's Urban Advantage network, is a co-sponsor.

Last year, the campaign attracted nearly 750,000 people in 47 states to informational events, check-ups and disease screenings. Activities include fairs and screenings at malls, churches and parks.

Studies show minorities are at much higher risk for a number of serious health conditions, often regardless of socioeconomic status. Blacks are twice as likely to die from diabetes as whites and 34% more likely to die of cancer, for instance. Infant mortality in blacks is more than twice that of whites.

Improving minorities' trust in the health care system is crucial, program officials say. Incidents like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study -- which from 1932 to 1972 kept more than 400 black men with syphilis unaware of their condition and untreated -- have instilled deeply rooted fears in many black Americans, the officials say, and public figures like Joyner can help win back trust.

''Tom Joyner's access to the African-American community is tremendous,'' says Deputy Health Secretary Claude Allen. ''He is a voice that is not only reaching the communities that we're working with, he is a voice that is trusted . . . that is key.''

Joyner's own son's diabetes was discovered at one of last year's events. Joyner is now on a 30-city tour featuring live broadcasts of his talk show and free concerts in support of the Closing the Health Gap campaign.

''We didn't just want to talk about the necessity of going to get checked, or the disparities in our communities,'' Joyner says. ''We do that all the time, over and over again. . . . Our purpose was to come up with a call to action.''

Though fully supporting these efforts, some experts caution that one-day events are just a first step on a long path toward bridging the gap between the medical community and minorities.

Doctors, often of a different culture and upbringing than their patients, must make their own efforts to maintain relationships with minority communities, says Stephen Thomas of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Minority Health.

''Providers have lifesaving information,'' he says. ''Unfortunately, they have challenges in communicating it in ways that are meaningful to the people who need it most.''

Thomas started the ''Take a Health Professional to the People Day,'' a Pittsburgh-area offshoot of the national initiative that occurs on the same day. The program sets up medical professionals in local barbershops and salons -- long-standing focal points of black communities. Shop employees are then trained as health information counselors who are based in the shops year-round.

The intent, Thomas says, is to bring the initiative from the clinical setting into the neighborhoods.

''Our aim is to engage the community as real partners,'' Thomas says. ''Local communities can own this initiative.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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