Dr. Thaddeus Bell knew for a lot of his life that there was a blatant health disparity between black and white South Carolina residents.
After making the decision to pursue medicine years ago and getting more validation on those disparities through his previous position as the Director of the Office of Diversity at the Medical University of South Carolina, he felt like he needed to do more.
“I decided I wanted to do something about that,” he said.
The creation of Closing the Gap in Health Care came as a result of that want. Recently, the organization celebrated 15 years of combating health disparities in South Carolina through spreading health literacy tips via online newsletters and radio and television news segments.
According to mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black men have consistently had the highest mortality rate. That rate has steadily increased between 2014 and 2017. With similar rate disparities showing up in both diabetes and cancer research, many experts have noted that more needs to be done to erase these disparities.
Life expectancy in the U.S. has been on the decline.
For Bell, it was after attending a health conference in San Diego back in 2004 that further pushed him down the path of creating Closing the Gap in Health Care. While there, he heard a lecture where a physician said that if they wanted to help with the disparity, then they would need to educate communities on how to better take care of themselves.
Bell’s wife suggested he start giving health tips on the radio. Today, through radio and television segments, Bell said their health tips reach more than 250,000 people a week. They host special educational sessions for local black men called Barbershop Talks, where they provide information on health issues that disproportionately affect black men.
Bell’s late daughter, Tonisha Bell-Alston, was also influential in getting Bell to do newsletters and in evolving the organization overall. The organization recently hosted its 11th Lowcountry Jazz Festival to help keep the program going.
“We are one of the few organizations in South Carolina that emphasize health literacy as a way to get rid of the disparities that affect African Americans,” Bell said.
Dr. Marvella Ford, the director of the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement at the Hollings Cancer Center, and her colleagues reviewed and evaluated Closing the Gap in Health Care’s work a few years ago to help with grant funding for the program.
In their evaluation they conducted focus groups in Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Colleton and Bamberg counties. They found it was clear the messages from the health tips were getting out to the public.
“The people really remembered the broadcast,” Ford said. “They were quoting them.”
“(Bell) focuses on health behavior, and improving your health behavior can lead to a dramatic improvement to your overall health status,” Ford said.
In the program’s 15 years, Dr. Bell has become a renowned family physician in South Carolina with one of the Fetter Health Care Network Clinics even being named after him.
For the future of Closing the Gap in Health Care, he hopes that his younger colleagues take up running the program when he has to step down one day.
“The health disparities are not going to go away in my lifetime … and they are not going to go away in the next 50 years,” Bell said.
Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.