2011 Hispanic Heritage Month Events-Tuesday Morning Plenary

Tuesday's Opening Plenary Panel Discusses Keeping the Promise of Education
Keeping the Promise:  Prevention First for a Healthy Latino Community

MODERATOR:  Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard

Dr. Elmer Huerta, Director, Cancer Preventorium, Washington Hospital Center
Elizabeth J. Fowler, Special Assistant to the President for Healthcare and Economic Policy at the National Economic Council
Sandra de Castro Buffington, USC Annenberg School for Communication
Chef LaLa, Healthy Lifestyle (Food and Nutrition) Expert and Advocate

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard Shares Staggering Statistics about Health in the United States

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard presented some sobering statistics in her overview of the challenges facing healthcare in the United States and in the Latino community.  Our country spends more than $2 trillion on healthcare—more than any country in the world—but lags behind 19 industrialized countries in healthcare outcomes.  Chronic diseases account for 75 percent of U.S. healthcare spending, yet each year, seven in 10 deaths in this country result from preventable chronic diseases.

Latinos are disproportionately affected by diabetes, heart disease, HIV-AIDS, and many other preventable chronic health conditions, and they are less likely to receive prevention services such as screenings.

These disparities were largely ignored until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which makes preventive services a priority and requires that preventive services are included in healthcare coverage.  It also funds community-based prevention services.

Rep. Roybal-Allard noted that while the bill provides the structural reform to begin to fix the healthcare crisis in our country, passing the health bill doesn’t change the culture in industry or human behavior.  She warned that these changes will be met with tremendous resistance as we try to get Americans to change from sedentary lifestyles and a diet of convenience foods to active lifestyles that include regular physical fitness and a diet of healthy foods.

She mentioned the urgent need to improve access to fresh foods and vegetables in inner city communities.  “This will be difficult to achieve,” she said. “It’s not easy to change the way we cook.  Some of the most delicious Latino foods are high in fats and carbohydrates.”  She expressed a fear that many people consider health screenings as invasive personal procedures and will not want to have them performed.  She emphasized that as difficult as these challenges are for our community and country, we can no longer permit these health disparities to exist.

Elizabeth Fowler, special assistant to the President for Healthcare and Economic Policy at the National Economic Council, noted that half of all Latinos don’t have access to a general practitioner.  The new healthcare law will cover 34 million Americans and will immediately provide help for those with preexisting conditions.  It will devote more doctors and nurses in community health centers to underserved communities.  It will also provide funds to update equipment and services in clinics and require that health plans cover preventive benefits with no deductions.

Elizabeth Fowler Discusses Provisions of the New Healthcare Law

The law also provides tax credits of up to 35 percent of the premiums if the business covers at least 50 percent of workers’ healthcare premiums.  Additionally, it also provides money to local governments for wellness and prevention and allows them a voice in how best to use those funds.

Dr. Elmer Huerta Stresses Prevention is the Key

From Oncology to Prevention
Elmer Huerta, M.D., director of the Cancer Preventorium at Washington Hospital Center
, started his career as an oncologist but became disenchanted with the specialty.  Most of the cancers were advanced and incurable by the time the patients were sent to him.  He realized that what was lacking was basic health education.  His patients all knew the scores of soccer games and storylines of soap operas, but they didn’t know what a pap smear was.  He decided that radio and television shows were the best way to bring these critical healthcare messages to the public.  So he went to work for a media company and launched daily and weekly shows on prevention.  In his medical practice, he no longer sees patients with symptoms.  His patients pay out of pocket for preventive medicine counseling, and 95 percent of his patients are Latinos.

The Power of Storytelling
Sandra de Castro Buffington of the USC Annenberg School for Communication
agreed that one of the most effective tools is storytelling because of the profound impact of media on behavior.  “Television,” she said, “can take complex issues and tell them in a simple, compelling way.”  She takes case studies of real people and inspires television writers to tell the stories accurately.  One example was the importance of pap smears in detecting cervical cancer that was written into a novella on a Spanish language station. Another example was a storyline about the importance of the surgical safety checklist that was written into an episode of ER.  “We see characters as close family and friends,” she said.  “Nothing becomes more effective than incorporating these messages in storylines.”
Sandra de Castro Buffington Explains the Power of Storytelling
Chef LaLa Advocates for Healither Lifestyle Choices

The Need for Better Lifestyle Choices
Chef LaLa, the cooking/nutrition Latina personality and advocate
, has made it her passion to educate people on nutrition.  “To have it all,” she said, “Latinas need to stop and take care of themselves.”  Three of her four grandparents died of diabetes, both of her parents have it, and she doesn’t want to get it.  She said the certain lifestyle clusters—particularly sedentary lifestyles—correlate with disease.  “People who make better choices work out, and people who exercise have better lifestyles,” she said.  Chef LaLa noted that we while we can’t take our favorite foods away, we can educate the Latino community to make better choices.  For example, 15 corn tortillas equal two flour tortillas made with lard.  It is imperative to teach kids how to make good choices, like passing on heavy fried foods for healthier foods such as apples and milk. “Short-term solutions don’t do any good,” she said. “This is an epidemic.”  She suggested that Latinos need to return to their culinary roots.  “We used to eat tons of veggies sprinkled with a little meat—not a side of beef.”

Fowler added that housing is another lifestyle choice that people can make.  Where you live dictates access to recreational facilities and playgrounds for children.  Recreation is important for stress management and is a key component for managing diabetes.

Fixing the System
Dr. Huerta noted that only 4 percent of healthcare is spent on prevention today.  The remaining 96 percent is spent feeding the healthcare system—the ER, hospital structures, and such.  The focus he said should be on keeping people disease free, which will require more changes within the healthcare system. 

Another critical need for healthier Americans is limiting exposure to toxic chemicals.  This is particularly important among agricultural workers, who are constantly exposed to pesticides.

Focus on Prevention Remains Essential
The healthcare challenges facing Americans, particularly the Latino community, are many.  In fact, Latinos are disproportionately affected by a variety of preventable chronic health conditions.  Despite positive changes made through the Affordable Care Act, prevention still remains only a small focus of the whole system, yet it is a critical piece to a healthier country.

For a healthier Latino community, our panelists agree that a combination of better lifestyle choices and preventive measures are the keys to reversing this epidemic.  However, one challenge is communicating these messages to Latinos.  An effective solution is to incorporate healthcare messages into mass media, especially the storylines of popular television shows.  Audiences identify with characters and what they are going through, so specific healthcare storylines may increase the likelihood that Latinos will seek out health screenings, make better food choices, exercise, and other preventive measures that may improve their lives.

View the Photo Gallery from CHCI's Public Policy Conference Tuesday Morning Plenary.