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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Where We Live, What We Earn Profoundly Impacts Our Health

Where We Live, What We Earn Profoundly Impacts Our Health

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Tue., Apr. 01, 2008
By William Walker, MD

You are more likely to die from heart disease if you live in San Pablo, Oakley, Richmond, Antioch, Martinez or Pittsburg, or if you are a man or an African-American in Contra Costa County. And African-American children are more than four times likely to be hospitalized for asthma than white children in the county.

These and other statistics show that social and environmental factors can profoundly impact our health. And, they are just a few of the dramatic differences in people's health status based on factors like race, economic status, education and environment.

These differences - called health disparities - are a threat to the well-being of our county and our country.

As a physician and health administrator, I'm disturbed that while the United States is one of the richest countries on the planet, we rank 29th in the world for life expectancy, among the worst in the industrialized world - and even lower than poor countries like Slovenia and Chile.

These disparities may only get worse as elected officials on the state, local and national level cut health funding to address budget shortfalls. However, there are things we can all do to close the gaps and help ensure that everyone has the same chance to be healthy.

First, we need to be informed. Health disparities are the subject of a four-hour series on the Public Broadcasting System, which started airing last month and runs through April 17.

The multi-part documentary, "Unnatural Causes - Is Inequality Making Us Sick?" has started a national dialogue about the root causes of disparities and how they can be reduced.

One of the segments, "Place Matters", focuses on Richmond. (The Richmond segment is scheduled for April 10, but check for dates and times.)

You can also read our Community Health Indicators for Contra Costa County 2007 report, which highlights stunning disparities here in our county.

Contra Costa's public health system, Contra Costa Health Services, has a formal policy to reduce health disparities. (Read about it on our Web site at - About Us).

We know that reducing health disparities will require strategies to both improve our health care system and also to address environmental issues like diesel pollution, obesity and lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, exercise, and access to health care.

Improving the social conditions that cause disparities - such as unequal education, poverty, inadequate housing and employment - also will take time and require the combined efforts of the community, elected officials and many others.

We are working with other health departments around the Bay Area to find solutions, and we'll be using the PBS documentary series as an opportunity to involve everyone in these discussions.

So get involved. Residents and community leaders in Contra Costa have a role in reducing health disparities. Watch the upcoming television shows. Read our Community Health Indicators report. Work with us and people across the country to protect our health care system - the safety net for many people - and fight for policies that can reduce health disparities.

To learn more about the PBS series, when it airs, how to get involved, and about what CCHS is doing, visit the CCHS Web site at or contact Connie James, Reducing Health Disparities manager, at or 925-957-5421.

Walker is the director of Contra Costa Health Services and the county health officer.

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