Research to Action spurs exchanges about health inequity
Author: Laura Gleim, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: March 4, 2014

At what’s been billed “speed dating for scientists,” the Research to Action Symposium hosted by Portland State University last week brought together more than a hundred people to pollinate ideas and share projects in the field of health equity.

In quick succession, researchers from PSU, Oregon Health & Science University, government agencies, and local organizations presented 5-minute snapshots about their work on the topic of social determinants of heath—the complex social structures and economic systems that are responsible for health inequities in our society. 

Portland-area organizations and agencies are working together through the PSU Social Determinants of Health Initiative to better understand and address the factors that take a toll on community health. 

“Anybody who ever has tried to diagnose and treat disease knows that it goes far beyond biology and even far beyond health care,” said Christina Nicolaidis, a medical doctor at OHSU and professor at PSU who leads the initiative. “We know the problems that exist. We know we have incredible inequities in health, incredible inequities in health care. The point now is—what do we do about it?” 

The goal of the symposium, part of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ aptly named Research to Action event series, was to spur collaboration and begin doing just that.

Presentation highlights include:

  • Multnomah County Health Department’s Ben Duncan examining the “deadly intersections of race and class” in public health practices—like the paradox of “telling someone to eat right when they don’t have fresh food in their neighborhood or to exercise when they don’t feel safe walking.” 
  • Attendees heard from Maylyn, a young woman who grew up in foster care and couldn’t read in middle school because she didn’t attend second, third, or fourth grade, but who participated in PSU’s My Life foster child empowerment program and is now enrolled in college. “How am I supposed to know something if I wasn’t taught it?” she said.
  • Engineering professor Miguel Figliozzi discussing the disparities of transportation infrastructure and their effects on health (low income areas typically experience worse air quality and fewer safe routes on which to bike and walk). “Believe it or not, engineers care about health too,” he said.
  • PSU Provost Sona Andrews and engineering professor Evan Thomas speaking separately about the potential for the proposed joint School of Public Health at PSU and OHSU. “I see an opportunity to make Portland competitive in the [global public health] field. PSU and OHSU by ourselves are not competitive—together we could be,” said Thomas.
  • Bobby Cochran from Willamette Partnership discussing the links between environmental conservation and human health. “If you ask people why they care about conservation, they say ‘clean air, clean water, natural places to play’—really they care about the environment because they care about health.”

“It’s speed dating, but not just for scientists—it's really for anyone who's engaged in trying to understand and resolve critical issues that we're facing as a society,” said Jennifer Allen, director of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

And Nicolaidis reminded us: “speed dating is just the first date—hopefully there will be some second and third dates, and maybe some marriages.”

The Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State has hosted previous Research to Action Symposiums on the topics of urban sustainability and ecosystem services. The next symposium is planned for May 16 on the topic of food systems.