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Programs combat health disparities

  Dalton Skerritt, men’s health manager at Whittier Street Health Center, speaks with two men’s health program participants. (Photo courtesy of Whittier Street Health Center)

According to Dalton Skerritt, men’s health manager at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, “men of color in Boston are facing a serious health epidemic.” In a city where black men are three times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, the data support Skerritt’s assertion. Yet, in Skerritt’s words, “there is hope.” A lot of organizations are working together to help eliminate disparities in health for men of color.

Indeed, while black men in Boston are much more likely to die from prostate cancer, they are also more likely to have had a Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test within the past year, indicating that important prostate cancer education and screening resources are making it out into the community. Yet the large gap in mortality rate indicates that too often men of color are screened late, once the cancer has significantly progressed.

“Our goal,” says Skerritt, “is to reach men early, not only with screenings to detect diseases, but with primary care focused on behavior change and healthy lifestyles to prevent the diseases from happening in the first place.” This behavior change is critical if we are to truly eliminate disparities in health. According to a 2007 report by The Boston Foundation, our personal behaviors account for 50 percent of our health. A number of factors drive unhealthy lifestyles, including poverty, unemployment, education, culture and limited access to health education.

Obesity, a primary factor behind a number of diseases including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, asthma and some types of cancers, is a significant health concern for the community that Whittier serves. In fact, among Boston’s neighborhoods, Roxbury has the highest rate of adult obesity.

“We track health outcomes for all of our patients, and obesity continues to be an indicator of poor health for our community,” says Halima Mohammed, Whittier’s vice president of programs and services. “Patients with a Body Mass Index over 25, which means they are overweight, are twice as likely to have diabetes and hypertension as patients with a BMI under 25.  Sixty percent of our male patients have a BMI over 25. This is a serious concern.”

Whittier works closely with these men to change behaviors, improve diet and increase exercise to prevent the onset of chronic diseases. Once in care at Whittier, patients have access to a number of services that help them grapple with these difficult lifestyle changes. Yet, as Skerritt knows, getting men into the health center is half the battle.

“It is critical for us to reach deep into the community with innovative programs to connect men of color to care,” Skerritt said. “We work hard to build trust with our community to ensure men that our care is truly ‘patient-centered.’ No matter what, the needs of our patients come first. For a community that has long been neglected and disconnected from health care, building this trust is no easy task.”

One of Whittier’s innovative outreach programs is a Post-Prison Release program that involves a partnership with the Suffolk County House of Corrections. The program allows Whittier staff to meet with men prior to their release and conduct a health and social service needs assessment within the prison. Upon release, men receive help enrolling in health insurance, selecting a primary care physician and connecting to needed health and social services, including job training and housing support.

“The Post-Prison Release program is a critical means for us to reach men who would otherwise have no other place to turn. We are not only improving health, but also improving community safety and reducing recidivism rates by giving these men the support they need to regain control of their lives,” says Skerritt.

Another program that helps connect men to care is Whittier’s annual Men’s Health Summit. Held each summer, the summit includes free health screenings, health education, food, entertainment and community health awards. This year’s summit is slated for July 10 at the YMCA of Roxbury and will include a keynote address by Madieu Williams, the starting safety for the Minnesota Vikings and founder of the Madieu Williams Foundation, which focuses on health, wellness, nutrition, fitness and education for underprivileged youth.

For more information about the summit or any other men’s health programs, please contact Dalton Skerritt at  617- 989-3028.