April 2, 2001

HumEc Kicks Off Its Centennial

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Dr. Henry Foster, dean emeritus of Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine and the first surgeon general nominee from the Clinton administration, helped the College of Human Ecology celebrate its centennial anniversary when he served as its keynote speaker on Friday.

Foster is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology. In 1996, former-President Bill Clinton appointed him as his senior advisor on teen pregnancy reduction and youth issues. In this capacity, he also served as consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“I have great admiration for the career of Henry Foster. He’s committed his life and career to helping women,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin in her introduction.

Foster’s speech emphasized the importance of public health issues and commented on the disparity in health care services for minorities in the United States.

“Public health is not adequately appreciated nor is it properly addressed,” Foster said Friday.

Although the United States has seen some decline in public health problems, many issues remain prevalent and unyielding to prevention efforts, he noted.

For example, while teen pregnancy has declined — especially for African Americans — there has been little success in decreasing smoking among female adolescents.

“You’ve got to tell your little girls that they don’t have to smoke cigarettes to stay small,” Foster said, highlighting one of the greatest attractions that lead young women to start smoking.

Primarily, Foster believes the major downfall of the U.S. health care system is its unjust treatment of minorities. African American males suffer from the worst disparities in access to health care, he said.

“The magnitude of disparity in health care for African American males is depressing,” he noted.

African American males represent the only group for which life expectancy is decreasing, he said during his speech. African American men suffer from significantly more cases of HIV and AIDS, cancer, homicides and firearms injuries than white men.

On this point, Foster connected with audience members who were shocked by the facts he presented.

“I found Dr. Foster very interesting. It was amazing to hear a person of his stature here. [His speech] really related to me as an African American,” Candace Banks ’04 said.

Foster offered his vision for an improved national health care plan, starting with a universal public system that would insure national productivity and stability.

“We need to take the best out of the British and Canadian [health care systems], which provide coverage to everyone,” he said.

“Basic research is not a goal,” Foster added. “It is appropriate to make miracle vaccines, but it is inappropriate when, in our nation’s cities, 40 percent of the children are not immunized. The point is to get the vaccine into people’s veins, not just to create it.”

Foster suggested that although medical technologies and facilities in the United States are second to none, citizens do not receive satisfactory health care.

“The U.S. spends $1 billion per day on health care. Other nations spend much less and provide universal health coverage,” he said.

Foster pointed out that although the U.S. spends so much on health care, countries such as Cuba, Tobago and Trinidad have lower infant mortality rates.

Although Foster is discouraged by the disparities in U.S. health care, he remains optimistic that the system will improve.

“The change in public health care will come about through voter participation,” Foster said. “We are allowing the wrong people to make decisions for us.”

“Health care is not a privilege, but rather it is a right. If every criminal has the right to a lawyer, then every child has the right to a doctor,” he said.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin