Former Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin said Thursday that the pandemic has reinforced the inequality of health and health care in the U.S., as Blacks, Hispanics and the poor have suffered from the coronavirus at a greater rate than other Americans.
Benjamin was a keynote speaker during the five-day BIO Alabama annual conference that ended Friday. She spoke via Zoom for about 45 minutes from the BayouClinic she founded in 1987 in Bayou La Batre.
“We have to change the way we think about health in this country,” said Benjamin, who was the nation’s top doctor from 2009 to 2013. “And that calls for the nation to take a more holistic and integrated approach to community health. Everything from safe highways and worksite wellness programs, to clean air and healthy food. And nothing has really made that more evident and more clear than what we see now during COVID-19.”
Benjamin is a national leader in preventive medicine, fighting health disparities and developing innovative community-based strategies for low-income and rural communities. In 1995, she became the first Black woman on the board of the American Medical Association and in 1998 received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.
“We need to get to a place where everybody understands that almost everything that we do, whether we label it as health or not, or prevention, it really does affect the health and quality of life of all Americans,” she said.
Benjamin opened her nonprofit medical clinic 33 years ago to help the underserved across the Gulf Coast. A year later, Hurricane Georges destroyed the facility. Hurricane Katrina took out the next office, and its replacement burned down the night before an open house. She persisted, building the current office that serves more than 4,500 patients.
“It is well-documented and researched that your ZIP code is a better predictor of your health and longevity than your genetic code,” said Benjamin, who in 2008 was awarded a MacArthur Genius Award Fellowship.
Throughout the conference, online attendees heard from thought leaders about topics relevant to the Alabama bioscience community. The lineup of more than 60 speakers included top corporate executives, elected officials and economic and health care experts from Alabama State University, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and UAB.
Benjamin is on the boards of three companies shaping the future of health care: Proteus Digital Health, a company advancing digital technology to improve patient outcomes; Nurx, a web-based telehealth company; and 98Pointe6, which specializes in new generation telemedicine. She said bioscience companies can play an important role in bringing equity to health care.
“You really do have the ability to help the people that I’ve described to you,” she said. “And that they have access to the technologies and innovations that we’re all hopefully coming up with to improve our health outcomes, because a healthy community depends on healthy individuals and healthy individuals depend on healthy communities.
“We can’t sell our products, we can’t sell our technologies, if we don’t have a good base to do that and a good community,” she added. “Becoming a more healthy and fit nation requires more than educating the public just piecemeal and creating programs piecemeal: It requires a dedicated group of leaders just like you to take that charge.”
Benjamin said she couldn’t leave the conference without reminding everyone of the importance of the “Three W’s.”
“Wear your masks, all the time, over your nose bridge and under your chin,” she said. “It’s not wear your mask or social distance; it’s wear your mask and social distance. … Wash your hands and watch your distance. Those things are the tools that we have right now to fight COVID.”
BIO Alabama is the leading advocate for Alabama’s bioeconomy, said President and CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath. The nonprofit professional membership group promotes the intellectual and innovative capital that make the state a premier place to invest, start and grow in bioscience. BIO Alabama is the state affiliate of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) and represents five core sectors: drugs and pharmaceuticals; medical devices and equipment; research institutes, universities and medical laboratories; biotechnology distribution; and agriculture and chemicals.
Benjamin can be reached at www.ReginaBenjamin.net.