April 9, 2012

Mystery: Why health outcomes can vary greatly

Faculty will convene to share insights, solutions

The price of gas or a gallon of milk can vary from one town to the next, but that’s hardly the end of the comparison. How about neighboring ZIP codes where residents of one live 20 years on average longer?

Not an anomaly, this divergence repeats in areas across the United States.

Faculty at Johns Hopkins want to uncover the root causes of why, for example, a boy born in the Union Square neighborhood of Baltimore can face such a sharply different array of health outcomes than someone born six miles away in a more affluent area.

Next month, university leadership and a panel of distinguished faculty from across the university will gather for a two-day symposium to examine the social determinants of health and discuss new insights and possible recommendations for reducing such health inequities.

The event, hosted and organized by the Office of the Provost, seeks to raise awareness about the impact of social determinants of health and the role of policy in shaping these issues. Provost Lloyd B. Minor said that he hopes the symposium will serve as a catalyst for future internal collaborations.

“Many see health as a medical issue, and yet social factors are a greater determinant of health than medical care itself,” Minor said. “From education and sociology to health policy and economics, Johns Hopkins has so much expertise to bring to bear on this vitally important topic.”

The range of topics to be discussed at the inaugural Provost’s Symposium on the Social Determinants of Health include economic growth, poverty, discrimination, violence, class and social gradients, education and the influence of social determinants in early life.

Participants will look at these issues broadly in the national and international contexts.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate for his contributions to welfare economics, will serve as keynote speaker for the event, to be held on May 8 and 9 in Homewood’s Shriver Hall Auditorium.

Sen, the Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University, served as a member of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health.

Born in Santiniketan, India, Sen studied at Presidency College in Calcutta, India, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and he has received numerous awards and honors for his research, including the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998 and the Bharat Ratna, the highest honor awarded by the president of India, in 1999.

The symposium’s other featured speakers are Minor; Martha Hill, dean of the School of Nursing; David Andrews, dean of the School of Education; Katherine Newman, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; and Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Faculty experts from fields such as engineering, economics, pediatrics and social science will participate in the eight panel discussions. Among them are Jacquelyn Campbell, of the School of Nursing; David Bishai, Robert Blum, Jean Ford, Marsha Schachtel and Daniel Webster, all of the Bloomberg School; Katrina Bell-McDonald, Andrew Cherlin and Robert Moffitt, all of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; and Tina Cheng and Sarah Lindstrom-Johnson, both of the School of Medicine.

Gerard Anderson, professor of health policy and management and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management at the Bloomberg School, said that the symposium is intended to bring university divisions together to confront a major challenge that has many components.

“When you start to look at why we have such inequalities in health, it’s not just one issue; it’s violence, it’s early childhood development, it’s education and economics,” he said. “And you can’t address these problems with just one school or discipline; we need an array of experts to be engaged.”

Anderson, who coordinated the panel participants, said that the symposium
will hopefully be the start of a larger initiative.

“One goal here is to get the faculty to know each other better and see where common areas exist,” he said. “Following the symposium, we plan to have more meetings to consider what next steps to take.”

For more information and to register, go to www.jhu.edu/provost/sdh.