U hosts health care talks

Minnesota’s high national rankings for health care only tell part of the story.

by Mike Enright

When Dr. Tim Rumsey founded United Family Practice Health Center in 1975, his goal was to provide health care for the underserved.

More than 30 years later, the clinic on West Seventh Street in St. Paul is a federally-funded health care facility that serves about 13,000 patients, many of them poor and without health insurance.

“It’s a free clinic for the 21st century,” Rumsey said.

He was one of 10 health care professionals who came to campus Saturday for the first Student Led Dialogue on Health Disparities, co-hosted by the University chapters of the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children and the American Medical Student Association.

The six-hour discussion highlighted inequality in the health care system at state and national levels. The event was intended to inform future doctors and nurses about how the system works – or doesn’t – and what needs to be done to fix it, organizers said.

Jan Malcolm, president of the Minnesota Public Health Association, kicked off the event at the Phillips-Wangensteen Building, talking about the state of health care in Minnesota and comparing it to the rest of the nation.

Although the land of 10,000 lakes is known for having some of the best health care in the country, beneath the surface there are some very serious issues, said Malcolm, who served as state health commissioner under former Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Minnesota perennially ranks in the top three in overall average health care quality, she said, but that only tells part of the story.

“Beyond the average, we have some of the greatest disparities in the nation,” Malcolm said. “That’s not something to be proud of.”

Low birth weights and infant mortality rates – good indicators of larger health care problems – are twice as high for black Minnesotans than it is for whites, she said. The state’s teen pregnancy rate, while among the lowest in the nation for whites, is one of the highest for people of color.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 46 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2005.

The World Health Organization ranks the U.S. system as 37th in the world, Malcolm said, though America spends at least 50 percent more per person for care than any other country.

In order to fix the problem, there needs to be a shift in policy away from individual accountability, Malcolm said. The United States needs, she said, to provide access for all people and emphasize preventative medicine.

“I think health care is a right and should be universal and affordable, but I don’t think it is a right without limit,” she said.

Fellow speaker Mary Brainerd, president and chief executive officer of HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based nonprofit health-management organization, agreed with Malcolm.

“From the standpoint of the economy, addressing disparities is smart,” she said.

Most presenters agreed it will take policy change and education before the health care crisis can even begin to be solved. They supported making health care more accessible, but emphasized that it’s only a part of the puzzle.

Biology junior Jared Liebelt said he attended the discussion Saturday because he thought it would be helpful for someone who plans to enter the health care field.

“I mean, you could be a doctor, but you won’t be very effective unless you know the system,” he said.

Liebelt said he learned a lot about health care disparities from the professionals at the event.

“It’s been really eye-opening,” he said. “Before, I knew this was an issue, but I didn’t think it was feasible to get involved in. Now it seems more attainable.”

Nandini Kataria, a junior scientist at the University Cancer Center, said it was good for industry professionals to talk to students about solving the inequalities in the system, but not enough discussion happens outside the classroom.

“A doctor in the real world, they don’t think about how they can better understand a patient’s culture or background,” she said. “They don’t have time to think about that stuff. They don’t want to.”