MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The University of South Alabama's Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, Dr. Errol Crook, believes how safe people feel in their neighborhood affects their health.
He recently talked to FOX10 about health disparities and training doctors sensitive to the issue.
Crook, says his family and growing up in a small community fostered his concern for people. Two of his uncles were physicians so it was always in his mind as a child.
"It wasn't a foreign concept," says Crook.
He's taken that youthful "thought" to the top of his profession. Today, he is Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Alabama.
Crook's two uncles lived miles away from his hometown of Monroeville and were rarely able to visit. One practiced medicine in Detroit, the other in California.
Regardless, their accomplishments, his parents influence and encouragement, and his small-town upbringing helped prepare him his future success.
"Monroeville was a small town that was also a loving town, loving community," Crook said. "We didn't have that many distractions, so we could focus on preparing folks to take advantage of their opportunities."
An emphasis on education propelled Crook from that small town to Yale and Columbia Universities but he says people are sometimes hesitant to believe in his Ivy League background. He had his own reservations as well.
"When I first arrived, there was some concern on my part as to whether or not I was as ready, prepared as the other kids there but that quickly wore away. It was really an eye opening experience in education that was very valuable for me and helps me to this day," Crook says. "Being able to teach and produce physicians who are going to go out and hopefully be wonderful practitioners in their communities, it's actually a real privilege."
After leaving a position at Michigan's Wayne State university eight years ago, Crook became USA's head of the department of Internal Medicine.
Dr. Crook says USA's multi-pronged approach for creating healthy communities includes a Pipeline Program that works with kids from underserved communities to enhance their math, science, test taking and communication skills.
The Pipeline Program helps prepare them to go to college and pursue their career of interest.
His resume and experience are impressive, and the scientific investigator and medical school professor has added another title: Director of USA's Center for Healthy Communities (CHC).
It's an outreach to folks who are underserved and under-insured and the National Institutes of Health has recognized the CHC for its work in improving health disparities.
He said disparities in health in the US are at some of the highest levels they've been over the last 50 years. He said he saw the problems firsthand in his hometown as well as to the places that he travelled.
"I sort of said to myself, ‘If I'm going to be dealing with those, maybe it's good to do them in my own back yard,'" Crook said.
Crook believes that the fight to eliminate those disparities will take place in the environment in which the patients live, not just ‘behind an exam room door between a health care provider and the patient."
"Health disparities we deal with are issues related to where people live and their local environment. Is there a park there? Is it safe for someone to get out in their neighborhood to walk? It doesn't do us any good to prescribe walking as exercise to someone who feels locked in," said Crooks.
Safe neighborhoods and sensitive doctors are a combination Crook believes will change Mobile's health disparities but the people of the communities will need to be involved in the change. According to him, they are the ones that understand the barriers and needs in the community.
"I see creating this army, if you will, of folks who are from the communities of interest, or work in them or just have a special love for them to go out and be empowered to advocate for good health and health habits," he said. "There's no evidence we're making the turn yet, but I am optimistic that with so many pieces coming together trying to address that very important issue that we're going to be able to start changing things."
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