Health problems, including diabetes, are among the consequences of negative social determinants that are prevalent in five Buffalo ZIP codes. The Buffalo African American Health Equity Task Force plans to attack those determinants. (News file photo)
By News Editorial Board
Published October 5, 2019
The phrase “facts are stubborn things” is attributed to John Adams, the Founding Father. On Buffalo’s East Side, segregation and poverty are facts of life for which the word “stubborn” is a vast understatement.
Two Buffalo pastors, the Revs. George F. Nicholas and Kinzer M. Pointer, are the driving forces behind the Buffalo African American Health Equity Task Force a coalition of community leaders that formed five years ago. The group’s mission is to eliminate race-based health disparities on Buffalo’s East Side. It’s a daunting task, but Nicholas, pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, and Kinzer, pastor at Agape Fellowship Baptist Church, believe that changing health outcomes is possible if enough people pay attention to the underlying issues.
The effort is attracting attention. Erie County Medical Center recently announced a $372,000 grant to help the task force pursue its goal of establishing a Buffalo Center for Health Equity.
The task force publicized the new funding at its annual conference in mid-August. It also announced the appointment of Dr. Willie Underwood III, a prominent urologist, as executive director of the Buffalo center. The Buffalo center will be a clearinghouse for research into health disparities and social determinants as well as the home base for advocates who will press leaders in the public and private sectors to stay alert to these issues.
Organizers make economic as well as humanitarian arguments for their cause. For example, the national economic impact of cardiovascular disease is estimated at $259 billion per year. The death rate for cardiovascular disease is 40% higher for blacks than whites. Reducing the risk factors – including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise – would lead to a lessening of the economic burden on the country.
There are five ZIP codes within Erie County in which African American men, women and children experience many of the worst health outcomes. At the county’s Department of Health clinic, 73% of the patients come from those five ZIP codes, all of them in Buffalo: 14204, 14206, 14211, 14212 and 14215.
The task force points to “social determinants” as leading indicators of poor health outcomes, outweighing individual health habits and even access to health care.
“We can’t change health outcomes unless we deal with social conditions,” Nicholas said in a meeting with the News’ editorial board. “And so we can put up 50 clinics on every block and have doctors everywhere, but that’s not going to move the needle.”
Social determinants include income level, employment status, education, physical environment and existence of social support networks.
In the five ZIP codes, the task force found some stubborn facts:
• Unemployment is significantly higher than in the rest of the county, New York State and the country.
• Median household income and per capita income are about half of the rates in Erie County (for three of the ZIP codes).
• Race and ethnicity distributions are heavily skewed toward African Americans.
• High school graduation rates are much lower than in the county as a whole.
Diabetes is one of the chronic disease that hits African Americans especially hard. In statistics for Erie County from 2011, black people had a rate of hospital admissions rates for diabetes of 356.6 per 10,000 people, more than double the rate of 156.1 for whites. For Hispanics, the figure is 274.4.
Identifying social factors doesn’t make them go away. A task force cannot desegregate a city. There’s no magic wand to make poverty disappear or get supermarkets to make large investments in troubled neighborhoods.
But this is lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. The task force has enlisted some high-level supporters, including the University at Buffalo and its Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, among other schools. And in July the organization won a $790,000 federal grant to focus on health outcomes in the five ZIP codes.
Citizens of Erie County should not have their life expectancy determined by ZIP code. We look forward to creative approaches from the Health Equity Task Force.