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Organizing Efforts to Eliminate Health Disparities: The Season of Change Is Upon Us

Boyce, Cheryl A. MS; Williams Smith, Joy MPA

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November 2008 - Volume 14 - Issue 6 - p S56–S57
doi: 10.1097/01.PHH.0000338388.67189.73

Authors in this commentary emphasize the need to eliminate health disparities through community efforts as well as changes in health, social, and economic policies.

Cheryl A. Boyce, MS, is Chair, National Association of State Office of Minority Health, Washington, District of Columbia, and Executive Director, Ohio Commission on Minority Health, Columbus, Ohio.

Joy Williams Smith, MPA, is Executive Director, National Association of State Offices of Minority Health, Washington, District of Columbia.

Corresponding Author: Joy Williams Smith, MPA, National Association of State Offices of Minority Health, 1776 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Ste 615, Washington, DC 20036.

The 1985 landmark report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health found that there was a continuing disparity in the burden of death and illness experienced by Blacks and other minority Americans as compared with the nation's population as a whole. The report showed that although data delineated steady gains in the health status of minority Americans, the stubborn disparity—an affront both to the nation's ideals and to the ongoing genius of American medicine—persisted. The task force mandated immediate, substantive action. Toward that end, Secretary Margaret M. Heckler set into motion the establishment of the Office of Minority Health in December 1985. The Office of Minority Health serves as the nation's focal point for addressing health disparities that exist between the nation's racial and ethnic populations and the general population.

State Offices of Minority Health (SOMH) emerged during the era of the Heckler report. The first office was established in 1987. Offices in 16 states were established between 1988 and 1992, 10 states between 1993 and 1998, and 3 states between 1999 and 2004. Today, there are 46 SOMHs. The development of these state entities was based on the needs and health infrastructure of each state. Some offices focused on service delivery whereas others focused on cultural competence, workforce issues, public policy, and so on. Motivated by the energy produced by this network, the offices began to explore a common agenda for eliminating health disparities.

With support of the Office of Minority Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, states were surveyed to characterize the core functions and perceived roles of their offices. As a result of this work, core competencies were developed to guide the work of all SOMHs and inform policy makers of the resources required to ameliorate health disparities. This unifying experience provided the foundation for the development of a national association that represents and advocates for health, social, and economic policies to positively impact the health of minority communities.

In October 2006, the National Association of State Offices of Minority Health (NASOMH) was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting public health policies and practices that ensure and protect the total well-being of racial and ethnic minority communities, tribes, and tribal organizations. NASOMH's guiding principles are to

  • eliminate health disparities for communities of color and tribal organizations through vigilant monitoring, regulation, and investigation of determinants of disease and injury;
  • build capacity of national, state, and local governments to develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate high-quality cultural competence standards in all domains of public health including policy, funding, and programs; and
  • engage and empower the communities of color and tribal organizations in innovative ways to support individual and community health efforts.

In the past year, there has been the emergence of “local offices of minority health” conforming to geopolitical subdivisions and adopting the core competencies established by NASOMH. This local presence has afforded the infrastructure to support and nurture a meaningful relationship between all levels of government and community-based organizations and agencies.

The existence of health disparities in this country is well documented. They are historic, chronic, and persistent. The fact that they are not new creates a sense of urgency to eliminate them. That urgency to prevent premature illness and loss of life has driven the work of the minority health network since 1985. This sense of urgency is a driving force for a call to action by NASOMH and the network of community entities to rigorously work at eliminating disparities.

This is the season of change!

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.