Michele Allen, MD, MS, came from a background in sociology, which led her to pursue research on health equity in medicine later on. Dr. Allen practices medicine through a unique lens of social context and analyzes how opportunity impacts health for people, as well as how it influences their behavior.
Racial disparities for health among African Americans persist throughout the Twin Cities, and the figures are stark and expansive.
The systemic obstacles that still face African Americans can be exemplified through health outcomes. African American mortality rates are nearly twice as high as those of white Minnesotans (except for in the elderly). Dr. Allen and colleagues are working to better understand the racial disparities and then apply the knowledge in a community and clinical settings to close that gap over time.
“I really think of health outcomes not so much tied to individual behavior but more so to the presence or lack of privilege and opportunity. Whether that’s poor education, poverty or experiences of racism. All of those factors strongly influence opportunities for health and wellness."
Oftentimes, the lack of opportunity is determined at a young age.
Dr. Allen explained, “I really look at what causes adolescent health behavior in terms of what the people around them, in their families, schools and our larger community, are doing to support their healthy development. I learned how relationships and connections can shape children’s outcomes for behaviors such as tobacco use.”
Education remains the largest influencer of health long-term as it often provides a higher level of income and, thus, better access to healthcare. Being given the opportunity to obtain health insurance is crucial and provides people with access to screenings and treatment options.
“There are all kinds of associations between level of education and health outcomes. Even between graduating high school versus those that don’t. It’s multi-factorial; health literacy is important as is just understanding what prevention means, but it’s also about what kinds of jobs people can get,” Dr. Allen said.
Improving health equity is a complex process, but Dr. Allen and her colleagues’ continued efforts are a positive step in the right direction.