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North Shore NAACP hosts panel on racial disparities in medical services

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Besides being life-threatening diseases, what do prostate cancer and COVID-19 have in common? According to a number of health care practitioners in the area, they both disproportionately affect people of color.

The North Shore NAACP, in partnership with prostate-cancer advocacy organization AdMeTech, hosted a panel of speakers including state senators, doctors, and community advocates, to speak on the issue Thursday night. 

State Sens. Joan Lovely (D-Salem) and Brendan P. Crighton (D-Lynn) opened the panel by touching upon their work with health care equity pertaining to COVID and prostate cancer, respectively, and both reported similar rates of disparity in diagnosis and illness severity. 

“Racial inequities in our health system unfortunately are not new; they have been prevalent for many years in prostate cancer, in maternal health, and in overall indicators of health,” Lovely said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown these inequities into the spotlight, and it has exacerbated them substantially.

“We are all aware that communities of color have suffered disproportionately at the hands of COVID-19,” she added, noting that Black Massachusetts residents had COVID-19 at nearly double the rate of white residents, and that Hispanic and Latinx residents saw triple the rate of infection of white people.

Crighton confirmed these figures where prostate cancer is concerned.

“Black men have a 60 percent higher rate of occurrence (than the average rate of one in seven), and are 2.5 times more likely to die of prostate cancer,” he said.

After the senators spoke, the floor was turned over to Dr. Phillip Rice, chairman of emergency medicine at Mass General Brigham (MGB) – Salem Hospital. Rice’s presentation dealt more generally with infection and mortality rates related to COVID-19, but he included data which showed the efficacy of the mRNA vaccine.

However, his data in Essex County was grim, and he noted an 80 percent increase in infection rates over the past 14 days.

“The amount of deaths has tripled over the past month,” Rice said. “So now, in Essex County, two of our county members are dying a day.”

Following Rice was Dr. Clovene Campbell, medical director at Pediatric Associates of Greater Salem & Beverly, who shared an equally dire portrait when discussing how COVID affected the lives of local children.

While hospitalization and mortality rates remained low for children, she said, 140,000 children lost their caregivers during the pandemic.

“Nearly a third of children who lost a caregiver were Latinx,” she said, “and just over one in four were Black.”

The other thing Campbell witnessed was the mental-health toll COVID was taking on children. But it was here that the doctor saw an upside.

“In a single day I might discuss anxiety and depression with every single patient,” she said. “And that has improved with vaccination rates.”

Campbell noted that vaccination allowed children to participate in recreation and community activities, which she noted improved their well-being tremendously. 

Dr. Faina Shtern, an advocate with AdMeTech, spoke next, pivoting the conversation to prostate cancer. 

Shtern’s work at AdMeTech, she said, was to focus primarily on prostate cancer prevention “in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic” among high-risk populations ― primarily Black, Hispanic, and Latinx men.

“In April of last year, early in the pandemic, we were able to discover that prostate-health disparities directly overlap with pandemic hotspots,” Shtern said.

She, and Dr. Stephen Zapala, a surgeon and assistant clinical professor of urology at Tufts University, both affirmed that one’s race often determined one’s “risk factor” in developing terminal prostate cancer.

Zapala’s presentation focused mainly on the different modes of diagnostic and treatment procedures for prostate cancer.

“With early detection and early diagnosis, you have all the options available to you,” he said. “But if people start coming in too late because of fear of the exam, fear of the unknown, lack of access to quality care, we’re diagnosing them too late.”

While the speakers ranged widely in expertise and focus, one thing was consistent among them: that treatment, regardless of disease, should be speedy, comprehensive, and accessible.

“Equal access to care creates equal outcomes,” Shtern said. “Access to care is the key factor in eliminating health disparities.”

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