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One Doctor’s Quest to Demolish Health Care’s Racist Barriers

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In 2005, Marcella Alsan earned a master’s in public health from Harvard as well as a medical degree from Loyola University. She soon headed to Tijuana, Mexico, to tutor at an orphanage for a year. She ended up providing physical therapy to a young boy with hydrocephalus, a condition where fluid builds up in the brain. They would move him off the floor, try to swing his legs and arms, and sing to him. The boy had previously been unable to obtain a shunt while a baby that would have helped relieve fluid buildup. As a result, he was now suffering from brain damage that left him bedridden.

“The contrast at the border was so incredibly stark,” Alsan told The Daily Beast. “I think it motivated some of my work on health inequality.”

Years later in late 2021, Alsan, now a professor of public policy at Harvard, would be recognized for her timely research on how the legacies of discrimination had perpetuated racial disparities in health care and health outcomes in ways we are only now starting to see discussed in the public forum. She was among 25 Americans selected for the very prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which awards people $625,000 over the course of five years to pursue creative endeavors and influential work that is geared toward “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

Alsan’s work these days is in analyzing health-care trends through the lens of what she calls “the economics of the downtrodden.” It’s quite a unique landing point for someone who used to work as a practicing physician, and who later on pivoted into economics.

After getting her master’s from Harvard, Alsan first hoped to work with Doctors Without Borders, as she had “always wanted to work on health care for indigent populations,” she recalled. But her experience on the ground instigated her to look at the economics of health care. When she visited Ecuador in 2004, she noticed a shortage of insulin due to cutbacks on health and education budgets.

“What motivated me [to pursue economics] is thinking about poverty and the root causes of unequal distribution of disease and medicine.”

She tackled her dual passions concurrently, securing her PhD in economics at Harvard in 2012, and earning an Infectious Disease Fellowship at Mass General Brigham in 2013. The fellowship in particular aims to train leaders in the field of infectious diseases who ensure diversity, equity and inclusion remain on the front burner of their careers.

Her research has moved her from simply studying the effects of health-care disparities, to more aggressively seeking solutions. Black men, for instance, have one of the lowest life expectancies of any major demographic group in the U.S. In her well-known 2019 paper published in the American Economic Review, Alsan and her research team outline a double-blind study they ran in Oakland, California, to test out one strategy to reverse this disparity.

In Oakland, the team opened up a pop-up health clinic, recruiting Black men…

Read Full Story At: The Daily Beast.