Closing gaps in minority health care helps us all

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Jamie Ulmer

Jamie Ulmer

Dr.  Flora Sakornsin with patients.

Dr. Flora Sakornsin with patients.

National Minority Health Month is observed in April, an initiative that targets the health needs of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and other minorities.

The observation is designed to build awareness regarding the unequal burden of preventable death and illness in these groups. Racial and ethnic minority populations have higher rates of poor health than white counterparts in a range of conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma and heart disease.

National Minority Health Month is rooted in the 1915 establishment of National Negro Health Week by Booker T. Washington. In 2002, National Minority Health Month received support from the US Congress. The resolution encouraged “all health organizations and Americans to conduct appropriate programs and activities to promote healthfulness in minority and other health disparity communities.”

Healthcare Network was founded in 1977 as a nonprofit to tackle the medical issues of migrant farm workers, the rural poor and citizens in Collier County. As the only Federally Qualified Health Center in Collier County, Healthcare Network welcomes all patients, regardless of insurance or job status, providing the same high-quality care to all.

Community Health Centers like Healthcare Network are not ordinary medical clinics. We are also problem-solvers who reach beyond the exam room to care for the whole person and help address the social determinants of health, such as connecting patients to resources such as food and housing that are essential for a person’s complete well-being.

Here are just a few ways that the Healthcare Network is working to address racial health care disparities in Collier County.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted existing health inequities, with Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native populations in the US experiencing higher rates of hospitalization and death compared to white populations.

Healthcare Network worked with community partners in Immokalee to provide culturally and language-appropriate information about COVID-19 to remote, vulnerable communities, helping to combat challenges faced by underserved communities.

Racial minorities are more likely to live in primary care shortage areas. Access to primary care is critical because of its role in prevention, chronic disease management and as an overall entry point to the health care system.

The US Health Resources and Services Administration designates nearly all of Southwest Florida as a “Medically Underserved Area,” meaning that there are too few primary care providers for the growing population.

Yet community Health Centers like Healthcare Network improve access to high quality primary care for at-risk populations, as well as people with insurance, while decreasing hospitalization rates and use of emergency departments in the states and counties that they serve.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that racial and ethnic minority groups in the US are less likely to have access to mental health services.

Healthcare Network patients continue to benefit from an integrated behavioral health model, where patients are screened for mental and behavioral health issues during regular primary care appointments. Combining behavioral and mental health in one setting helps reduce the stigma many patients may feel when seeking mental health services.

Black Maternal Health Week is recognized each year from April 11-17. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. Multiple factors contribute to these disparities, including variations in accessing quality health care.

Our new maternal-fetal medicine program focuses on women with high-risk or complicated pregnancies, specialty care is not always available to low-income mothers. In addition, we offer a wide range of in-office procedures such as management of ectopic pregnancy, the Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) to prevent cervical cancer and vulvar biopsy. These procedures were previously only accessible to our patients at a hospital, where the cost was often prohibitive.

Recognizing that health care needs to be accessible, affordable and comprehensive, our commitment to our community, as Collier County continues to rapidly grow, is to be innovative in the way we reach at-risk populations.

In addition, it is increasingly important that the community supports nonprofit organizations already in place and working to address health care disparities in Black, indigenous and people of color communities.

Jamie Ulmer is president and CEO of Healthcare Network. He serves on the executive and chair committees for the Florida Association of Community Health Centers and is a member of multiple committees for the National Association of Community Health Centers. For information, visit

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Closing gaps in minority health care helps us all