Martine Hackett posed a question.
"Why is it so hard to talk about health inequality on Long Island?" Hackett, an assistant professor in the school of health sciences and human services at Hofstra University, asked the audience of about 60 gathered at the university's student center Wednesday.
Hackett was a panelist at the Nassau County Minority Health Conference, whose job it was to talk about just that issue.
The conference was part of a weeklong series of events put on by the university's 2-year-old Master of Public Health program in recognition of National Public Health Week. Corinne Kyriacou, director of the master program, said the events -- ranging from panels on dental health to radiation safety to dating violence -- came from the hard work of public health students.
Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, Nassau's health commissioner and a conference collaborator, told the group that the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last month rated Nassau as best in New York in health factors and sixth statewide for health outcomes. Yet, he said, pockets of poor health remain. Nine county ZIP codes -- those with high proportions of impoverished minorities -- suffer higher rates of diseases.
"In those nine ZIP codes, we have double the rate of hospitalization for diabetes," he said. "If we could only bring those rates to baseline [of the rest of the county], the savings would be immense." He said the county has applied for grants targeting health disparities in those needful areas.
"The goal is to level the playing field," he said.
Hackett said race is at the root of many health disparities in Nassau, where 95 percent of the black population is concentrated in just 5 percent of the county.
Blacks and Hispanics in Nassau die prematurely from diabetes at twice the rate of whites, she said, and the infant mortality rate among blacks in Nassau is about five times that of whites. The infant death rate in Uniondale, with a high concentration of minorities, is 11.5 per 1,000 births; next door in East Meadow -- whiter and more middle class -- the rate is 0.9 infant deaths per 1,000, she said.
Dr. Adam Aponte, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, said educating people to understand basic health information so they can make good decisions was key.
That is the intention of Alicia Colangelo, 24, a public health student graduating in May. As she handed out information on safe sex to high school students at a health fair after the conference Wednesday, she said her "passion" was patient education in adolescent sexual health.
Johanna Andrews, also 24 and graduating in May, said her dream was to head a "health equity institute." Earlier this year she put on a health equity symposium and she saw Wednesday's conference as a continuation. "This is really empowering for me," she said.