How Medical Schools Try to Help Doctors Understand Patients in Poverty

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WHEN IT COMES TO HEALTH and longevity, being poor is expensive. Poverty’s detrimental health effects are many and wide-ranging. From a lack of access to fresh vegetables and lack of money to pay for medications to not having the time off to visit a doctor during business hours, the impacts can be subtle, cumulative and ultimately life-threatening. A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that residents of wealthy counties can have a life expectancy more than 20 years longer than those who live in impoverished counties.

Philip M. Alberti, senior director of Health Equity Research and Policy for the Association of American Medical Colleges, says “there’s an increased awareness and understanding of how poverty – both individual as well as neighborhood poverty – has powerful effects on health and health outcomes. A low-income neighborhood is less able to promote health and wellness,” typically because it offers “lower-quality housing, lower-quality education, decreased access to healthy foods, transportation, child care and safe places to exercise, etc. And a person with limited financial means is less able to access health care to make follow-up appointments or to afford necessary medications. There are so many pathways that connect poverty to health,” he says, and these “partly explain why the U.S. experiences such entrenched disparities and inequities in health. Some groups literally cannot afford to be as healthy as they could be.”

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