Engineering Solutions to Health Care Disparities, special session at the BMES Annual Meeting

This year's Engineering Solutions to Health Care Disparities session at the BMES Annual Meeting will feature Linda Villarosa a journalist, an educator and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Villarosa covers the intersection of health and medicine and social justice and runs the journalism program at the City College of New York in Harlem

The session is scheduled for Thursday, October 17, 3:45 PM - 5:15 PM at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Room 108A

This session examines how health and health care disparities remain a costly and burdensome challenge in the U.S. and pose a serious threat to continued improvement in overall quality of care and population health. Biomedical engineers are well positioned to employ novel biodesign strategies toward the elimination of these disparities.

Villarosa recently shared some thoughts on this area with BMES:

BMES: How would you describe the general public's understanding of how health and medicine overlaps with social justice?

Villarosa: America has (arguably) the most advanced medical technology in the world, and spends vast amounts of money on health care. However, we lag behind all other wealthy nations in key measures of health that serve as a proxy for our overall well-being, starting at birth and ending with death. Generally, this story of inequality and disadvantage in health gets dismissed as “only” affecting the poor or being one of class, not race. It is indisputable that poverty creates emotional disruption, poor living conditions and fear. Health-care facilities in lower-income communities are often neglected and left to waste away.

The poorest communities lack access to healthy food, clean water and air, and safe outdoor space. This, in itself, is unfair and tragic, and affects people of all races and ethnicities who live in pockets of rural, urban and suburban poverty across the country. Rather than take into account these structural inequities, we blame the individuals, by insisting they wouldn't be poor if they worked harder and wouldn't be sick if they were educated and simply took better care of themselves. However, even when income, education and access to health care are matched, African Americans remain deeply disadvantaged.
BMES: Data shows subtle prejudices some physicians hold can effect how certain patients are diagnosised. How do pre-judgements spill over into other areas when it comes to medicine and social justice?

Villarosa: Research points to a pervasive, long-standing racial bias in health care — including the dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms — that can help explain poor health outcomes. The vast majority of physicians are white and bring their individual biases to their work. Even health care providers of color harbor bias, driven by a continuous stream of media images and persistent, centuries old racial stereotypes.

This spills over into how people of color use the health care system and sometimes avoid it. It shows up most dramatically in pregnancy and helps explains poor outcomes in black women as well as pain management, which is underused in patients of color, particularly black patients.

BMES: Based on these issues, how do you think technology can help start chipping away at health disparities? What role do you see researchers playing in improving things?
Villarosa: I think the solution is two-fold: first, we already have excellent medical technology in this country, but access to health care is deeply unequal. The poorest parts of the country lack the medical technology available to people of means. America needs to acknowledge this inequity and fix it. Period. Second, even when class, money, education and access to health-care technology are equal, black people remain disadvantaged. The solution to this is not throwing more technology at the problem but figuring out how to tackle the institutional racism embedded in medicine and, essentially, put the “care” back in healthcare.