Stempel College researchers work toward ending health disparities and elevating communities in need

Last year amidst the brutal beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of civil unrest calling for an end to systemic racism, a seemingly new issue made national headlines. Researchers discovered that minority populations were among some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Why? Mario De La Rosa, professor of social work at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and director of the Health Inequities and Disparities Program, says that low-income members of minority populations are more likely to work frontline jobs, live in densely populated areas that make social distancing difficult and lack access to health care.

People who couldn’t afford to take time off work or continued in essential jobs, for example, were crippled by the lack of information about the virus. They were out working before guidance about preventive measures and mask-wearing were in place. The result? They suffered higher risks — and infection rates.

Nandy Smith, a public health master’s student, understands the situation well. Mom to a newborn baby, she couldn’t afford to stop working when the pandemic hit in 2020. Neither could her family members or friends. “A lot of us don’t have the luxury to stop working,” she says. “Almost every single person around me still had to work or lost a job and still had to find some source of income during the pandemic.”

While Smith, thankfully, did not contract the virus, she knows others in similar situations have. Smith enrolled in the Stempel College’s master’s degree in public health program with the goal of one day promoting health and well-being among the Black community. She says, “The African American community always gets hit hard, financially, illness-wise, having pre-existing conditions, not having health insurance….our communities always get hard.”

But this kind of situation among minorities isn’t new. Researchers like De La Rosa have been studying health disparities—inequalities or barriers to health care affecting people based on cultural, racial, socioeconomic or other factors—for years.

Through FIU’s Health Inequities and Disparities Program, co-led by professor of dietetics and nutrition Marianna Baum, researchers are uncovering trends and crafting solutions to reduce and eliminate these disparities. The fledgling program is designated one of FIU’s promising, emerging pre-eminent programs.  

“The fact is that there is a gap between individuals who live in vulnerable communities when you compare their health to those who have higher income, access to health care and higher socioeconomic status,” De La Rosa explains.

“This is due to many factors called social determinants of health,” he says. Social determinants of health are the socioeconomic conditions that impact people’s differences in health status. These determinants, De La Rosa says, include things like poverty conditions, racism, lack of access to health care, low-quality insurance, lack of information, lack of education and poor housing conditions.

Read the full story by Gisela Valencia on FIU Magazine