LOS ANGELES, July 29 (UPI) -- A disturbing healthcare divide between white Americans and minority groups should be addressed with a new emphasis on teaching impressionable adolescents to avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse, unsafe sex and sedentary lifestyles, two former surgeons general said Monday.
Speaking at a panel discussion at the National Urban League convention in Los Angeles, Drs. David Satcher and Joycelyn Elders called for a new thrust in the nation's schools and among public interest groups to ensure children learn solid nutrition and good eating patterns, the importance of exercise and avoiding bad habits that could come back to haunt them in the form of chronic ailments, substance abuse problems and unwanted pregnancies down the line.
"We need to get comprehensive health education in our schools from kindergarten through 12th grade," Elders said. "Not just 'abstinence only.' It is time to address the issues and not just hide our heads in the sand."
"We know that education is the great equalizer," Elders said.
Healthcare has become a growing concern among African-American community leaders amid troubling statistics that indicate blacks are more likely to die of cancer or diabetes than whites and have an average life expectancy of 71.8 years, more than five years fewer than whites.
In addition, African-Americans are less likely to have health insurance and around half don't have a family physician who can monitor their health on a regular basis.
"If it gets bad enough, you go to the emergency room where they have no records and they don't know you," said Satcher. "The whole country is in danger when people don't have adequate access to health care."
Satcher credited President Bush with a low-key but important step in improving medical care nationwide by taking up the issue of affordable malpractice insurance so that doctors can afford to continue practicing in all areas of the country. But the two doctors looked to the community for more concrete progress in improving the overall health of minority groups.
Satcher, who like Elders served in the Clinton administration, told the audience there was a growing grassroots movement in minority communities to teach people about the seriousness of chronic ailments like diabetes and the importance of good nutrition, exercise and screenings for diseases such as HIV, lead poisoning and prostate cancer -- a physical exam that Satcher said men in machismo societies tend to find particularly distasteful.
"If you have a church or fraternity or an Urban League chapter, make sure that the older people in your group are getting their flu shots," he suggested. "If you are concerned about the quality of care they are getting, get any nurses or doctors in your group to review what's going on with them and check their medications."
Government and many private foundations, Satcher said, had funds available to launch such programs, which sometimes include direct ties to university health centers for health services.
"If you do a good proposal, you should get funded," he said.
Satcher and Elders also called for community groups to take a greater role in keeping physical education and other health-oriented subjects in their local school curriculums, and making sure city officials keep parks, playgrounds and other areas used for exercise safe and well maintained.
Elders, who had been fired as surgeon general by President Clinton in 1994 after remarks to a major AIDS conference about the potential benefits of masturbation in terms of slowing the spread of the HIV virus, insisted as well that sex education be part of the mix when instilling the health lifestyle concept in youngsters.
While not as blunt on Monday as she was in 1994, she was still adamant on the need to teach children about sex in the context of preventing disease and teenage pregnancies, which she said lead to more school dropouts and the continuation of the cycle of poverty in America.
"When I think about health, it is more than an absence of disease," she opined. "It's about jobs, it's about schools and it's about all of the other things that go on in our community and our environment."