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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Health equity: zip code, not genetic code

Jacob Fenston

Health experts gathered in Columbia today to discuss ways to address disparities in health and access to health care.

Whatever disease or health indicator you look at, there are big gaps among racial and ethnic groups. For example, African Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes compared to whites; cancer rates are much higher among blacks and Latinos.

But Thomas LaVeist, public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, said these differences have a lot more to do with place than race.

"We need to recognize that the disparities are not mainly a function of biological differences, that it has much more to do with your zip code than your genetic code. That health behavior is shaped by the communities we live in and that behavior can affect your health."

Ending these health disparities will require rethinking much of the health care system, said Darrell Kirch, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges. He said those changes need to start with premed curriculum that stresses more than biology and chemistry.

"In 2015, a few years from now, the famous MCAT test, the admissions test for medical school, will be revised so it also includes social and behavioral science content. That sends a strong signal to students about which courses they should select to be prepared," he said. "We're trying to help them to understand that being a successful doctor means much much more than just getting a good score on the MCAT."

The conference in Columbia was held by the Missouri Health Equity Collaborative