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Health gap between Boston’s blacks, whites explored

Health disparities persist in the city of Boston between people of color and white residents, and efforts to combat racism and increase minority patients’ awareness of their rights as health care consumers are needed to bridge the divide, specialists said on Monday.

Speaking at a forum hosted by the State of Black Boston, a coalition of groups that ­includes the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, public health specialists discussed findings that were detailed in a report published in July 2011 that showed black Bostonians suffered from a number of serious health conditions at higher rates than white residents.

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Dr. Karen Winkfield, a radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said people of color in the city sometimes do not seek medical care because they expect to be treated poorly by health providers.

“We have to realize that it’s real and we can’t just sweep it under the carpet,” Winkfield said at the forum, which was held at the Dimock Center in Roxbury, of the racial bias she said is faced by minorities in hospitals. She also said a lack of adequate transportation and child care are obstacles to care for minority patients.

According to the report, which the Urban League published in collaboration with other groups, black infants died at rates ranging from 8.7 to 14.6 children per 1,000 births between 1996 and 2008, compared to rates between 2.8 and 9.5 for white infants during that period.

Barbara Ferrer, executive ­director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said that stress related to the effects of racism is a major factor in the higher rates for black infants. She said public agencies and other groups must work to combat the effects of racial prejudice on public health.

About 100 people attended the forum, which was sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

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Dickson Iyawe, 55, of Lynn, who directs the MassHealth ­Enrollment Center in Chelsea, said during the question and answer period that cultural ­divides can also hamper efforts at delivering effective health care. Iyawe, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria, said that when he suffered a mild heart attack several years ago, his nutritionist did not know about the food that he ate, which is particular to his culture.

“I see a difference between the immigrant community and the African-American community,” he said of the health care needs of both populations.

Monday night’s event is the second in a series of forums ­being held to discuss the implications of the 2011 report, which touched on several issues in addition to health, including education and economic development. The speakers Monday night included Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston.

“Eliminating health disparities for African-American families will allow all of our residents to participate in the many civic and economic opportunities Boston has to offer,” ­Menino said in a statement.

Ruth Ellen Fitch, president and chief executive of the ­Dimock Center and one of the panelists, said during the ­forum that patients of color need to assert their rights to health care access.

“We should demand that we be treated by those [medical] professionals with respect,” she added.

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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