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Reducing The Racial Health Gap

Federal health officials are hoping to fill doctors' offices on Sept. 24, encouraging black Americans to get health screenings - and ultimately reduce significant health disparities.

The "Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day," is a takeoff on the popular, "Take Your Daughter to Work Day," and officials hope it will catch on in the black community.

The program, part of the Department of Health and Human Services' effort to reduce racial health disparities, was being announced Thursday by Secretary Tommy Thompson.

"People can take charge of their health, and participating in 'Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day' can be a positive first step," Thompson said in a statement. "Prevention and early detection of potential health problems are essential, and there are steps within our reach that we all can take to better protect ourselves and our families."

The campaign is being cosponsored by ABC Radio Networks. Its 240 urban radio affiliates plan to publicize the day and rally attention around the issue. Backers hope that hundreds of fraternal, religious and community organizations will join the effort by organizing health screenings, health fairs and other events that promote good health.

"We all know the importance of health care and taking care of ourselves," said Tom Joyner, a nationally syndicated radio host who is co-chairing the campaign. '"Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day' is a call to action to not only take care of ourselves, but to take care of the people we love."

Numerous studies have found massive disparities across diseases and throughout the health care system between blacks and whites.

The average life expectancy for blacks at birth is 71.8 years, compared to 77.4 years for whites. Blacks are twice as likely to die from diabetes, and blacks are twice as likely to die as infants as whites are.

The gap exists throughout the system, with minorities less likely to get appropriate care for a host of diseases, the Institute of Medicine reported last month.

They are likely to receive appropriate heart medicines, to undergo bypass surgery or to receive kidney dialysis or transplants. Minorities are less likely to get the newest treatment for AIDS.

The report said the differences exist even when insurance, income, age and the severity of the disease are the same for both groups.

The committee recommended changing health insurance programs to reduce disparities among economic groups and setting up education programs to increase health care providers' awareness of the problem.

Other recommendations included recruiting more minorities into health care, expanding patient education programs and improving enforcement of laws against discrimination.

By Laura Meckler