‘Engage and Educate’: Veronica Jones, M.D., on Addressing Health Disparities

February 19, 2018 | by Robert Young

jones-veronica-300x300 Veronica Jones, M.D.
Medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds over the past 75 years. Life spans have been extended, advanced cancer treatments and screenings have had a positive effect on cure rates, and drugs and antibiotics have virtually eradicated many diseases that were once deadly. 
But America still has a long way to go to make these lifesaving miracles widely available for everyone, regardless of social or ethnic status. Consider that the U.S. ranks last in life expectancy among the 17 wealthiest nations, largely due to a wide disparity among various ethnic groups.
The death rate from breast cancer among African-American women is 50 percent higher than white women, and twice as many black women die of cervical cancer — about the same rate as in sub-Saharan Africa. The wide racial gap holds steady among men and women with heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
How can this happen in such a prosperous nation?  It’s a complex issue, but a big reason is limited access to preventive care, said Veronica Jones, M.D., a breast surgeon and assistant clinical professor at City of Hope.  
“When I was working at Grady Hospital in Atlanta I saw a many African-American women who came in with late-stage breast cancer,” she said. “Nationally, that’s a trend and it’s one of the reasons for the disparity in survival rates. That’s why it’s so important to engage African-American communities and raise awareness of the importance of preventive care. But it’s key to be sensitive to how the information is received and made available.”

Community outreach

Reaching out to African-American communities is an effective way to educate, engage and even provide preventive services, Jones said. “When I was at Grady, we took mobile units out into the neighborhoods and gave mammograms — even breast exams. It made a difference.” Through City of Hope, Jones has spoken at many breast cancer awareness events in African-American communities — at churches, schools, restaurants and even a fashion show.
“Being accessible is important,” she said. “If the talks are presented at an event like an education fair or fashion show, knowledge about breast cancer can become more widespread. Then doctor visits and checkups might not seem as overwhelming. Not everyone feels comfortable attending an event at a hospital, so you need to reach out to them.  We want to empower the community through knowledge.”
The City of Hope talks aim to promote awareness and early detection, often among entire families. For instance, a recent presentation at a high school event promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education for girls allowed Jones to speak directly to teens as well as their moms.
Educating African-American teenagers on breast cancer prevention can have a really powerful effect over their entire lives,” Jones said. “And I get to reach their mothers, as well.” 
It’s a component of City of Hope’s Community Partnerships program, a joint effort with community hospitals, local leaders, policy makers and faith-based organizations to advance health care solutions for diverse populations. City of Hope also operates full-service medical centers in areas with high African-American populations, including in Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire, which would otherwise have limited or no access to advanced cancer care.
Dedicated to an inclusive culture, the world-renowned medical center actively recruits a diverse pool of physicians and nurses, as well as nurse navigators who guide patients through their journey and are dedicated to deal with complex social issues.  
“Dealing with such a diverse staff of medical professionals can make a patient feel more accepted and welcomed,” Jones said. “City of Hope is dedicated to having a very inclusive staff of professionals that mirrors the communities we serve.”

Turning 'food deserts' green

A lack of nutritious food options in African-American neighborhoods is another major health obstacle, Jones said. Many areas have no grocery stores or other sources of fresh vegetables and fruits, forcing residents to travel out of town or, too often, rely on fast food or convenience stores.
These communities are called ‘food deserts,’ and they’re a huge factor in elevated health risks in black communities, Jones said. “Along with increased pollution and not being able to walk the neighborhoods and get exercise, lack of access to healthy food is an important issue that can’t be stressed enough.”
Community outreach efforts are beginning to make inroads, however. Jones’ mentor, Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., Ruth Ziegler Chair in Population Sciences and chair of the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope, is investigating the impact of food deserts on cancer rates in City of Hope’s catchment area, a first step in quantifying the problem. And volunteer organizations such as L.A.-based Food Forward are collecting fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, making them available through food banks.
“Addressing the lack of resources is a very important and complex issue, but first we need to reach out, engage and educate,” Jones said. “I think as physicians, it’s especially important for us to be culturally humble and aware of the health issues and barriers that different groups face.”

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