Health Disparities Research Continues to Grow at UCSF

By Patricia Yollin | November 23, 2011

UCSF’s faculty and students are taking a wide-ranging look at the inequities that exist in the Unites States, in terms of both health itself and the quality of health care, across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Sadly, they don’t have to look too far to find great disparities in health.

Maisha Davis, a second-year medical student at UCSF, has been investigating the life of teens in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. Her study, titled “Community Violence and Adolescent Sexual Health: The 3rd Street Clinic Experience,” looked at the 744 most recent visits to the clinic between 2005 and 2011. The clinic serves mostly low-income African American youth.

Davis said the research team focused on 417 patients. Their findings are alarming:

  • Forty-five percent had lost a friend or family member to violence, 18 percent had witnessed violence and 8 percent had been involved in the juvenile justice system.
  • They started having sex, on average, at the age of 14.
  • Those who had witnessed violence had four times the odds of being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Davis describes why she thinks there is a link between violence and adolescent sex.


“If you perceive all this community violence and instability in the space you’re supposed to be functioning in most of your day, then you might not have this long-term view of how your life is going to play out,” Davis said. “Your misbehavior might increase just because you don’t think you’re going to live that long anyway — and so you might as well do what you can do in the short amount of time that you do have left.”

Davis said the clinic does a good job of creating a safe space and that it has served more than 1,700 youths since it opened six years ago, functioning as a drop-in center as well as a place in which 40 percent of clients receive their primary care. Its dual role offers a valuable buffer against the surrounding violence, Davis said.

Research into health disparities around the U.S. was the topic of discussion at the fifth annual symposium at UCSF. Each year, the symposium attracts more submissions from faculty and students who are investigating issues of inequity.

“I feel like this project, and all of us, have come a very long, long way,” symposium co-chair Barbara Gerbert told the audience at the end of the Oct. 7 symposium.

Gerbert, PhD, a professor in the Division of Behavioral Sciences and Community Dental Education in the UCSF School of Dentistry, organized the conference with co-chairs Eliseo Perez-Stable, MD, and Victor Fujimoto, MD, to highlight the work being done at UCSF in a field that has exploded — in practice as well as research — at the University and nationally.

The symposium at the Laurel Heights campus consisted of nine oral presentations, 30 posters and a keynote address by Spero Manson, PhD, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado, who is the country’s leading investigator on American Indian health. Their findings amply demonstrated gaps in outcomes, treatments and the presence of disease on many different fronts.

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