What Cook County must do to end racial health disparities

We do not have to accept different health outcomes based on the color of a person’s skin.

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Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller.

Stakeholders at every level must encourage positive behaviors to prevent larger health problems down the road, Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller writes.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

While COVID-19 put a spotlight on the challenges our Black and brown communities face in getting the health care they deserve, these inequities existed in Cook County and across the country long before the pandemic.

We now have the opportunity to learn from what the pandemic exposed and leverage this moment to create more equitable outcomes and ensure that conversations about health disparities do not end when the pandemic does. As we enter April, National Minority Health Month, we must commit ourselves to examining how to build a better future in which everyone can access the care they need.

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This issue is personal. Before I became Cook County commissioner for the 6th District, I spent decades in the health care industry. I’ve seen the flaws in our system first-hand and the concerted effort needed to make change.

I’m hopeful that in April, the Cook County Board of Commissioners will pass legislation I introduced that would require the Cook County Public Health Department and Cook County Health to present a health care disparities analysis to the Health and Hospitals Committee. This analysis would provide us with a better understanding of the challenges we face and how best to address them, and would also require both entities to appear in front of our committee semi-annually to provide progress updates.

I was also encouraged to hear Cook County Health CEO Israel Rocha announce, at the City Club of Chicago, the creation of the Change Institute of Cook County Health. The Change Institute will be dedicated to tackling issues related to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, four diseases that continue to disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. Rocha cited the importance of early intervention to prevent these diseases.

This is crucial because addressing the root causes of health disparities is, in some ways, just as important as treating disease itself. When I travel around the county, I often hear people speak with pride about how Cook County has a state-of-the-art amputee clinic. While I’m glad amputees in Cook County can get high-quality care, I’m also dedicated to helping prevent people from getting to that point in their battle with diabetes, vascular disease and other conditions. 

To do that, we have to look at the educational, environmental and economic opportunities that play a role in health outcomes. It’s not enough to just focus on the work being done in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms. We must look at factors like food deserts, economic stagnation and other structural barriers that lead people to needing care in the first place.

Stakeholders at every level — from small businesses and community organizations, to state and local government — should encourage positive behaviors like not smoking, exercising, eating healthy and staying up-to-date on routine medical care rather than waiting until a serious issue develops. We then need to educate people on how these simple behaviors can help prevent larger problems down the road.

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As we focus on preventive measures to improve health and level racial inequities, it is also critical to equip people with tools to help those experiencing life-threatening medical episodes like cardiac arrest.

In 2019, legislation I introduced established a countywide CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) training program, which included a hands-on practice component that hundreds of Cook County employees have completed. This training is critically important for the health of all residents, but particularly our Black and brown communities.

Despite being more likely to suffer from heart disease, non-Hispanic African American adults are 30% to 50% less likely than white adults to have bystander CPR performed on them when suffering from cardiac arrest. Having CPR initiated can almost double the chances of survival, so we can help save lives by equipping people with CPR knowledge.

We do not have to accept different health outcomes based on the color of a person’s skin. I’m encouraged by recent efforts to address these disparities, and we must remain vigilant to ensure positive health outcomes for all our residents.

Donna Miller is the Cook County commissioner for the 6th District.

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