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Dr. Freeman Hrablowski speaks to the audience at the Howard University Health Symposium. PHOTO: Roy Lewis/Trice Edney News Wire Dr. Freeman Hrablowski speaks to the audience at the Howard University Health Symposium. PHOTO: Roy Lewis/Trice Edney News Wire
16 April 2014 Written by  Hazel Trice Edney

National “STEM” Expert: 21st Century Doctors Must Also Know the Arts

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When Dr. Freeman Hrabowski was only 15 years old, he was in college and graduated at the age of 19 with high honors in mathematics from what was then Hampton Institute. He went on to receive a master’s in mathematics and then a doctorate degree in higher education, administration and statistics at the age of 24.

Now president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County since 1992, Hrbowski’s is a national expert on science and education with a special emphasis on minority participation and performance and on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). He recently co-authored a report called "Expanding UnderrepresentedMinority Participation:America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads" and was appointed by President Obama to chair the newly created President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.

But, despite popular believe that most people are either science or arts-minded, Hrabowski believes every doctor or scientist can and must be academically well-rounded in order to impact communities.

"If you’re going to be really good in STEM, you must also be really good in the other subjects because we don’t discuss problems in health with numbers. We discuss problems with language and words. And so, our ability to read well and to listen carefully to the problem," is essential, he told an audience of students, academics, medical experts and the general public gathered at Howard University last week. "A doctor is better or that health care professional is better when they can hear and understand the words and the significance of what somebody is saying – what the person says, what the person doesn’t say, what’s between the lines and the sophistication of language skills that can help us to solve word problems."

Hrabowski concluded, "STEM is so important because the fact is that whether we’re talking about whether somebody lives or dies, whether we’re talking about whether we can find a cure for cancer, whether we’re talking about how we protect our country, whether we’re talking about what we do with this environment and global warming; even when we talk about our quality of life every day, there’s some connection to what we call STEM."

Those were among the sentiments he expressed during the Howard University Symposium on U.S. Healthcare, which drew an audience of hundreds April 10. Students and adults alike craned to see and hear every move and word of Hrabowski’s lively keynote presentation, which was peppered with applause and laughter. His speech was among the high points of the daylong event with the theme "The Affordable Care Act and You!"

The ability to communicate with people of diverse backgrounds will be at the crux of the success of the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA), according to Jannette Dates, former dean of the Howard School of Communications, who founded the annual conference, which focused largely on "the village" approach to education on health care.

"Communications is the nexus," Dates said in an interview.  "It’s the focal point of everything and if you don’t figure out how to communicate what you’re doing, then you lose your ability to reach the audience that you have in mind. And that’s why communications is essential and all these other things come in as a part of it."

Despite his accomplishments, quality education for Hrabowski didn’t come easy.  Inspired by a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on educational equality, the Birmingham native was among those who protested, faced police dogs, fire houses and went to jail during the civil rights movement, risking his own life and future.

But, he recalled Dr. King telling them, "What you do this day will have an impact on children who have not yet been born."

Focusing on the middle school, high school and college students in the audience, Hrabowski stressed the academic balance.  "The people who will be most successful in life, whether they are majoring in literature or in chemistry will be those who take the work seriously, who are passionate about what they do, who believe that it’s important to listen to the stories of successful people, who’ve learned how to listen in general and who read a lot."

Panelists’ conversations were broad throughout the day, focusing largely on the benefits of the ACA and the problems it aims to fix. Among the statics and benefits received by the more than 7 million who signed up for this year:

  • More than 129 million Americans had pre-existing conditions that affected their ability to obtain or sustain health insurance. Health care premiums were skyrocketing, insurance company profits were  skyrocketing even more. Tens of millions of people were underinsured, 58 million had no insurance whatsoever.
  • Coverage has been made more affordable; especially for prevention of diseases that disparately plague African-Americans like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and tobacco addiction.
  • Youth who were uncovered are now able to be covered under their parents’ plans until the age of 26.
  • Community health centers are being set up in communities that have long been devoid of quality health care.
  • Insurance companies cannot spend any more than 20 percent of their premiums on salaries and overhead. Eighty percent has to be spent on health care coverage. It used to be 60-40. If they spend more than 20 percent, they have to give a rebate.
  • Some employers are mandated to provide health care.

Among a string of panelists throughout the day, Rick Valachovic, president/CEO of the American Dental Education Association, pointed out that the ACA is crucial; especially because of the growth of the people of color in America. "In 2045, more than half the U.  S. population is going to be minority," he said, citing Census statistics.

Because people of color or more disparately sick and poor, the ACA is especially beneficial, he says.

"Health care premiums were skyrocketing…It stops insurance company abuses," Valachovic said. "It stops insurance companies from denying initial coverage or to decline insurance coverage continuation over time" to people with pre-existing conditions.

He added that American dentists, who see 300 million patients a year, have served as a model for prevention of diseases. "What health profession can you think of that’s more committed to prevention than the dental hygienist?"