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Issues and advances in the field ofafrican-american health care

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With the inclement weather accompanying waning summer months, environmental issues seem at the forefront of everyone's minds. But the National Medical Association Annual Convention and Scientific Assembly (NMA) reminded our city's residents there are long-term measures that can help ensure their and their families' well-being.

  For a variety of genetic and environmental reasons, many of which medical research continues to reveal, several diseases and medical conditions (including sickle cell anemia, diabetes, uterine fibroids and hypertension) are highly prevalent among African-Americans. According to Dr. Kerry Sterling, a family practitioner with Ochsner West Bank, family history can be a significant indicator of a person's proclivity toward many of these diseases.

  "If someone in your family has been diagnosed, then it's time to see a primary care physician yourself, to assess your risk," Sterling says.

  Diet also plays a big role in prevention and treatment, which can prove particularly problematic in the South, where "food is essential to who we are," Sterling says. Excessive weight gain and an unhealthy diet can result in Type 2 diabetes, to which African-Americans are more prone than Caucasians, and foods high in sodium can aggravate hypertension, Sterling says. Signs of diabetes include being thirsty all the time, a voracious appetite and weight fluctuations, while hypertension results in headaches and sweating.

  New research and information can go a long way toward prevention: Sterling cites a new study showing people of African-American descent who have suffered a hemorrhatic stroke are significantly more likely to experience high blood pressure a year afterward, which increases the risk of another stroke. Awareness of this likelihood and other predispositions can help patients take extra measures to ensure good health. For diagnoses of diabetes and hypertension, Sterling recommends monitoring diet, first and foremost.

  "Watching food portions is important," he says. "If you go out, share a meal with your sweetheart, or eat half and save the rest for tomorrow's lunch." Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise (aerobic meaning that "you're breaking a sweat") five times a week is his recommended exercise plan. "People ask me, 'Where do you find the extra 30 minutes?'" Sterling says. "Cut off 30 minutes of television, put your kids in the stroller, or take your pets for a walk. It doesn't have to be expensive — you have two feet."

  New Orleans hosted the NMA's 109th annual convention, which wrapped up Aug. 1 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The NMA is the nation's oldest and largest organization catering to the needs of black doctors across the country. "Since its inception in 1895, the NMA has been dedicated to eliminating health disparities and improving the quality of health among minorities and disadvantaged people," says Joan Oguntimein of the NMA's publication department. A key facet of the organization's mission is promoting awareness of medical conditions unique to or particularly prevalent among African-American communities.

  The NMA sponsored events, panels, lectures and discussions. Along with general events, physicians and healthcare professionals attended courses targeting 24 specialties, including obstetrics and gynecology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, neurology and family medicine. It also was an opportunity for further accreditation in areas like pain management, medical ethics and HIV/AIDs treatment.

  "It's a chance for important, timely updates," says Dr. S. Gail Martin, a doctor of Family Medicine with a practice in Madison, Miss. "We're bridging gaps in African-American health care, and to implement change, there's a real need for these updates."

  The NMA convention also afforded its members opportunities to connect with each other. Many medical schools held alumni dinners where former classmates had a chance to catch up, compare schedules and share information. Elliott and Martin attended Xavier University and Meharry Medical College, respectively. Both agree that a highlight of the convention was the warm reception they received from their alma maters. "It was great to learn the progress and research that Xavier has made in these different fields," Elliott says. "I'm so proud of them."

  The NMA also is one of the few national associations that convenes for more than a day or an afternoon, Martin points out. This creates opportunities for productive relationships and a real absorption of knowledge.   

  "This is a place where you can actually go in and get research done with all of these great minds in there," she says.

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