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Epidemiologist Takes Part in White House Minority Health Forum

April 19, 2024

Adana A. M. Llanos, Columbia Mailman School associate professor of Epidemiology, was an invited participant at the 2024 White House Minority Health Forum on April 18. The event brought together Biden Administration officials, scientists, and other stakeholders to discuss the drivers of racial and ethnic health disparities, including historic environmental injustices, as well as efforts in science and policy to promote health equity.

A woman wearing a white suit poses on a staircase

Professor Adana A. M. Llanos at the White House

Llanos took part in a breakout session on community-driven solutions for alleviating or eliminating disparities that explored topics such as the need for genuine community engagement; and removing race-based models/algorithms from health care and clinical practice. They also considered the pitfalls of using the construct of “social determinants of health,” which suggests that with socially constructed characteristics like race, there is a level of predetermination when it comes to health outcomes but that is inaccurate. Instead, participants suggested substituting the phrase “social and structural drivers of health.”

During the closed session, Llanos discussed her research agenda, which focuses on understanding the impact of social and structural drivers of health—specifically, on the biological and molecular mechanisms that ultimately lead to carcinogenesis and cancer progression. Llanos investigates such questions as how U.S. federal policies that disenfranchised Black neighborhoods beginning in the 1930s affect breast cancer outcomes to this day and how experiences with racism at multiple levels—including interpersonal, community, and health system levels—impact a person’s cervical cancer survivorship experience. (Read a 2022 Q&A with Llanos.)

She explained that understanding these mechanisms is a critical component of addressing cancer inequities. When asked about what she feels is needed to drive progress towards health equity, her response was that prioritizing multilevel interventions and multi-pronged approaches—rather than targeting individuals and one social or behavioral factor at a time—could move the needle. She said the best place to start is on the macro level—neighborhoods and communities, health systems, and policymaking.

Said Llanos of participating in the forum: “It was an honor to be among approximately 70 leaders from various disciplines and sectors invited to discuss solutions to drive progress towards health equity for all Americans. As an epidemiologist and health equity scholar with intersectional identities that are underrepresented in research, this topic is both a personal and professional passion. And I am grateful for the opportunity to engage and bring my unique perspectives to the conversation.”

A separate breakout session on public health, access to care, and social drivers of health was moderated by Columbia Mailman alumna Kamal Menghrajani, MD, MS ’23, who is currently a White House Fellow, one of the oldest and most distinguished post-graduate fellowships in the country. Last fall, Menghrajani, an oncologist who studied biostatistics at Columbia Mailman, described her work on the Biden Administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, and said of fellowship, “It’s a phenomenal place to work.” (Read the full Q&A.)

Watch a video of the 2024 White House Minority Health Forum:

White House Minority Health Forum