Society and Health

What we term “health disparities”—the consistent gap in physical and mental well-being between the most privileged members of society and the most socially and economically disadvantaged—catalyzed the modern public health movement in the nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, the School has led a new wave of studies on the health effects of poverty, racism, social class, gender, and political economy.

In 1994, School faculty launched the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a large prospective study of high-risk children that applied the rigors of epidemiological research to the multifactorial problems of violence and antisocial behavior. Scholars have investigated the causes and effects of teen violence and have developed national interventions.

In a long-term study of mortality patterns in the U.S., School scientists showed that while overall life expectancy increased between 1960 and 2000, it declined or stagnated among a significant segment of the population in the Deep South, along the Mississippi River, and in Appalachia, ­ a finding reaffirmed in a 2008 School study. Creating a novel geocoding tool, School faculty have demonstrated that people who live in neighborhoods with the highest poverty levels suffer more heart disease, cancer, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, low birth weight infants, and homicides. School researchers have also uncovered disturbing patterns of inequities in hospital care for minority and low-income populations.

Governments around the world have long applied the School’s expertise to health problems rooted in social conditions. In the 1980s, economist David Bell worked on pressing problems in health, population, and economic growth in developing nations. In the 1990s, physician Lincoln Chen united health and population studies with development research and initiated the original Global Burden of Disease Study. More recently, a team of economists, demographers, and global health experts from the School found that improvements in health are major factors propelling economic success in China and India,­ a concept known as “health-led growth.” The findings have motivated governments to address health disparities as a spur to the economy.

Next: Health Systems and Health Care Quality