New minor track focuses on inequities in health

A new minor track in the Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI) allows students to explore the social causes and consequences of inequalities in life expectancy, health outcomes, health-promoting behaviors and access to health care.

Students in any major are now able to declare a health equity track within the inequality studies minor. The track is especially relevant for students who are interested in careers in medicine, public health, social science research or public policy.

“Over the past several years, we have seen an increase in students looking for opportunities to study the social foundations of health,” said Erin York Cornwell, associate professor of sociology, who teaches Health in Social Context. “Part of this stems from changes to the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which added a module on social inequality in 2015. This helped to draw pre-med students’ attention to the importance of understanding social inequality.

“But the growth in interest in health inequality goes beyond this,” she said. “Students interested in careers in public health, social services, nonprofit and community-based organizations, research, communications and consulting have been seeking opportunities to learn more about social scientific approaches to understanding and addressing health inequalities.”

And health disparities have been front and center in public discourse, said CSI director Kim Weeden, the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of the Social Sciences and chair of the Department of Sociology.

“[That’s true] not just in the ongoing political battles over access to affordable health care,” Weeden said, “but also in the opioid crisis, Serena Williams and other well-publicized examples of racial disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes, the ‘anti-vax’ movement and the re-emergence of measles, and the growing gap in life expectancy between poor and rich Americans.

“In each case, the causes and consequences are as much social as biological,” Weeden said. “The minor track will help students understand these social causes of health disparities, and to connect health disparities with other forms of inequality.”

Elena Gupta ’19, a human biology, health and society major and pre-med student in the College of Human Ecology, said the health equity track offers prospective physicians the chance to explore how they could be a player in improving the health care system.

“I think the social sciences are as important to medicine as the ‘hard’ sciences, and understanding broader societal structures and how individuals navigate them creates more compassionate, well-informed physicians,” Gupta said. “The minor has really informed my decision to go into medicine, and to make an impact by providing care to vulnerable populations. It actually also led to my creation of a nonprofit organization on campus [the Smart is Strong Foundation] that works to combat social inequality in other ways.”

Students must complete six courses to receive credit for the health equity track, including the core course, Controversies About Inequality, and others listed on the minor’s requirements page. Twenty-nine students have already signed up for the track.

A conference on the social context of health disparities kicked off the health equity track last fall, Weeden said. Students can also take advantage of events offered by the new Cornell Center for Health Equity, an initiative that bridges Cornell’s Ithaca and New York City campuses.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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