Tufts University

Closing the Gap

Health DisparitiesTwo Tufts students are bringing academia and the community together in the battle against disparities in health care.

Boston is known for its cutting-edge medical research and treatment. What doesn't always make the headlines is the plight of residents who suffer from poor health or inadequate access to health care. Looking across various racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, the differences in quality of care are obvious. Two Tufts students say this is just not right.

"We have some of the best teaching hospitals and some of the best care for patients," says Tufts junior Morissa Sobelson. "Yet within walking distance there are major gaps in health care and in access to health care."

Although they have never met, Sobelson and second-year Tufts medical student Tiffany Groover share a passion for righting this wrong. This fall they organized conferences on two Tufts campuses designed to engage students, faculty and community members in a dialogue on the issue. Sobelson's day-long "Health Disparities & Higher Education Symposium" took place in Medford on Nov. 17, while Groover's four-part "Health Disparities Meeting Series" wrapped up in Boston on Nov. 14. For both students, the events were the culmination of months of work.

A New Perspective

Sobelson began planning the symposium in March, shortly after returning from a trip to West Africa as part of Tufts' annual "Ghana Gold" study-tour program. She spent two weeks in Ghana in January analyzing the country's corporate social responsibility programs, specifically the gold mining industry.

"In Ghana, there is so much gold and the communities are not benefiting from that resource at all," she says. Back home, she began to view Boston's vast health care resources through a similar lens.

"That was a wakeup call," she says. "There isn't equality when it comes to health care."

Funded by Tufts Health Services, the Undergraduate Research Fund and the Institute for Global Leadership's Synaptic Scholars program, which encourages undergraduates to take on interdisciplinary research projects, Sobelson spent last summer exploring racial and ethnic health disparities in the Boston area.

Soon the community health and American studies major was planning her health disparities conference for the fall, a project that continued to grow beyond her expectations.

"It's a powerful statement to see how many different people from so many different walks of life really care abut the issue of health disparities."

— Morissa Sobelson

"I realized there was so much interest in it," says Sobelson, noting that local academics, community health workers, doctors and public health experts all eagerly accepted her invitation to participate. The event also attracted other health professionals, as well as students from other colleges and universities.

The Tufts Diversity Fund provided a $3000 grant to cover the majority of the symposium's costs and several Tufts faculty members, including Linda Martinez, a community health lecturer, and Michelle Bowdler, MSPH, senior director of health and wellness services, helped shape the focus for the one-day symposium on health disparities and higher education.

Says Sobelson, "It's a powerful statement to see how many different people from so many different walks of life really care abut the issue of health disparities."

Information and Action

The more than 300 attendees heard from a variety of local community health experts. John Auerbach, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health offered welcoming remarks, while Dr. Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School, delivered the keynote address.

The first half of the symposium featured panel presentations from other community health professionals and academics, while the second half was dedicated to break out sessions where everything from campus education to policy was discussed.

"The morning was oriented around learning about the issues," Sobelson says. "The afternoon was organized around action."

Health Disparities

From left, Alice Tin (A'10), Morissa Sobelson (A'09) and Kate Cohen (A'09) at the Health Disparities & Higher Education Symposium on Nov. 17.

With the symposium complete—Sobelson says the day had "a real sense of learning, collaboration and trust"—an all-student committee composed of undergraduate and graduate students from Tufts and other area institutions will continue the conversation about the role of higher education in addressing health disparities.

Funded in part by a grant from Tisch College's Civic Engagement Fund, the Health Disparities Student Leadership Committee will meet regularly to "see how we can make this idea of university-community partnerships actually happen," says Sobelson. "This group should help harness a lot of the energy that is being created."

As for her energy level, it's still pretty high, even after months of planning the symposium. It's been a valuable process, says Sobelson, who had help from Kate Cohen (A'09) and Alice Tin (A'10).

"It's humbling and inspiring to be able to learn from my peers who are engaged in this and to be able to learn from professionals in the field," says Sobelson. She credits Tufts with giving her a chance to explore her passion.

"It really reminded me about what an incredibly supportive place Tufts is when it comes to giving students, even undergraduates, the opportunity to really take some risks and think outside of the box when it comes to activism," she says. "If you are willing to put in the work to make a solid program, Tufts will be behind you." (continued)

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Profile written by Meghan Mandeville, Office of Web Communications

Photo by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Conference photo courtesy of Alison Coffey (A'11).

This story originally ran on Nov. 26, 2007.