Addressing the social contexts of health disparities

In the past 25 years, medicine has made striking advances in the treatment of heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and other chronic conditions. Yet these advances have coincided with skyrocketing health care costs, rising numbers of uninsured, and health disparities across the nation.

The new health care regulations are changing the support system for disadvantaged populations. The School of Social Service Administration will prepare the next generation of social workers for the important task of connecting the underserved with health care services. SSA is training social workers to focus on such critical areas as addiction treatment, aging populations, impoverished families with infants and children, teen sexuality, and individuals in the criminal justice system who are disproportionately affected by mental illness and lacked access to care before incarceration.

SSA is dedicated to reducing health disparities in the United States using empirical knowledge. With expertise in health policy, Medicaid, mental health, and substance abuse, SSA’s faculty have long recognized the interconnection of health care with social issues, politics, and the economy. This complex ecosystem requires evidence-based research trials to discover the true sources of disparities. These trials form the basis of SSA’s teaching programs and policy recommendations; their credible findings underpin the development of sustainable and effective programs that bridge the health-care gap.

HIV/AIDS, for example, affects some communities more than others. The STI and HIV Intervention Network, led by SSA Professor Dexter Voisin and Assistant Professor Alida Bouris, has established a consortium of scientists who conduct research on STI/HIV and community partners who help disseminate their findings. The goal is to work together to prevent the spread of STI/HIV in vulnerable populations.

SSA faculty’s research knowledge and deep community connections—gained from years of close collaboration—position SSA faculty to have a profound impact on these challenges.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Research, often influenced or led by SSA, has proven the impact and cost-effectiveness of preventative approaches in healthcare. Pasteurizing milk, fluorinating water, programs to help people quit smoking and avoid obesity—all are public policy solutions to medical problems. SSA research concentrates on this approach to fighting illnesses at the societal scale, from heart disease to depression. SSA helps families, communities, and agencies manage detrimental environments and design strategies that prevent mental illness, risky sexual behaviors, delinquency, and other issues.

These strategies require significant investments but promise equally significant results, enabling donors to make real impacts on societal problems at scale. It is a strategic approach that places SSA and its supporters at the leading edge of knowledge, developing leaders, policy, and effective practices backed by rigorous research.