Georgetown Hosts Conference on Social Determinants of Health

MARCH 13, 2014—Issues that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional health care—namely the environmental, social and behavioral factors that complete a person’s picture of health—were the focus of a conference hosted this week by Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

The Association of Academic Health Centers (AAHC) held its conference titled “Academic Health Centers and the Social Determinants of Health” on campus March 9-11.

The conference aimed to examine through a multi-disciplinary lens the barriers to addressing social determinants of health, which are variables associated with the environment, social and economic circumstances, and behavioral choices.

In his welcoming remarks, Howard Federoff, MD, PhD, executive vice president for health sciences at GUMC, said the focus of the meeting is a “natural fit” for Georgetown, which has as one of its core missions reducing the prevalence of health disparities globally—but with a particular emphasis on the Washington region.

Referencing Georgetown’s campus-wide Initiative to Reduce Health Disparities, Federoff noted that “Georgetown faculty and students have a long history of activity in just these areas, and their expertise ranges from health and medicine to sociology, psychology, policy and education.”

Diversify the Workforce

Steven Wartman, MD, PhD, MACP, president and CEO of the AAHC, said that addressing the social determinants of health will require a diversification of the workforce that starts earlier than medical, nursing or other professional school.

The new paradigm of health care, he said, “may be created for us rather than by us.”

Therefore, “we need to diversify the workforce” to meet new challenges, he said. “We need new kinds of health professionals rather than retread old models.”

Wartman also called for a standardization of community measures of social determinants of health. With so many people in the field, looking at so many different social, economic and environmental influencers of health, the need to create standards and benchmarks is greater than ever.

Social Determinants of Health

Federoff moderated a panel discussion featuring GUMC faculty who discussed their research into social determinants of health. Panelists included: Lucile Adams-Campbell, PhD, associate dean for community health and outreach and associate director for minority health and health disparities research at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center; Sherrie Wallington, PhD, assistant professor of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi and program director for minority health and health disparities research; and Martin Iguchi, PhD, dean of the School of Nursing & Health Studies at Georgetown.

The researchers described their work in various aspects of public health that are impacted by social and economic factors.

In describing her group’s research into exercise, stroke and cancer, Adams-Campbell stressed the importance of designing studies that take into account the community’s needs and perspectives.

“We are not about doing it ourselves. It’s about team science, it’s about community science, it’s about building partnerships,” she said.

Iguchi described his research on how the criminalization of drug use impacts the health of minority families.

While anti-drug policies are intended to benefit society, “in practice we are treating drug felons as morally unfit and deserving of eternal punishment, rather than treating this as a public health problem,” he said.

Wallington discussed the social determinants of vaccination for the human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the primary causes of cervical cancer in women and a cause of head and neck cancer in men. Both Washington, DC, and Virginia have passed legislation that mandates that young teens get vaccinated for HPV, which as a sexually transmitted disease is a culturally sensitive topic for many families.

Wallington said it is important to “work through the media frenzy” and separate fact from fiction when it comes to education regarding HPV vaccination.

A handful of panel discussions and two plenary sessions were held over the course of the two-day event. Attendees also held breakout sessions to discuss topics such as interprofessional education, collaborative health care practice and developing solutions to policy barriers.

By Lauren Wolkoff
GUMC Communications