This year’s Indiana Black and Minority Health Fair coincided with two other events in Indianapolis: the Black Expo summer celebrations and the centennial of the historically Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho. While thousands of Hoosiers and out-of-state visitors flocked downtown to attend Patti LaBelle’s free concert, some also took the chance to swing by the health fair for a free health checkup.
John Lee, a retired Hoosier, said this is his first time coming to the Black Expo and the health fair since the coronavirus pandemic. He took time to stop by many of the booths that lined the venue.
“I had blood tests done,” Lee said, carrying a stack of papers showing his lab results. “So, prostate screening, blood sugar, cholesterol, the PSA, sickle cell, the whole nine yards. I mean, why not?”
He said getting those free tests help him stay on top of his health without the burden of multiple doctor visits and medical bills. There’s also the sense of pride he feels when attending Black community events like the Expo and the health fair.
“I’m all about supporting Black events like these,” Lee said.
Organizers said the fair offered nearly $2,500 worth of free health services per attendee, including: blood tests, breast cancer screening, and dental and vision check-ups.
Addressing health care disparities
Black Americans are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured than White Americans. A recent study published in JAMA Network Open looked at a population of patients covered by Medicare and found primary care physicians are less likely to refer Black patients to specialists than White patients. This means Black patients are less likely to receive specialized care when they need it.
While events that provide free health care, like the Black and Minority Health Fair, are not a sustainable solution to some of the longstanding racial disparities in health care access, Linda Evans, 65, said she feels these events help fill the gap.
“The health fair is just awesome,” Evans said. “I do have [a] primary care [doctor], but for people who don't, and don't get to see the doctors, you're able to get all this information and you're able to get labs done. You're able to find out everything about your health, so it's just awesome.”
Evans said she’s been coming to the Black Expo for 51 years, and has attended the health fair for more than three decades.
Besides the health exams, the fair also offered wellness services like massages.
“One lady had tears in her eyes,” said massage therapist Jamal, the owner of Lamaj Salon and Spa. “People just love it. Especially if they never got it before. They don't realize some of the pain their bodies are in until somebody else touches it.”
On the other side of the convention hall, Curtis Gray stood at a booth speaking to visitors about help available for families affected by the trauma of gun violence. Gray, a victims advocate with Eskenazi Health, handed out free naloxone nasal spray — a medication to help reverse opioid overdoses.
“We have a high rate of overdoses in the city due to fentanyl. And these can potentially save a life,” Gary said.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that Black substance use disorder patients are less likely to have access to naloxone and less likely to have training for how to use it. The study found that Black overdose deaths are starting to surpass White overdose deaths for the first time in nearly 20 years, and that the rate of opioid deaths among Black people increased by 38 percent from 2018 to 2019.
Raising awareness and recruiting for research studies
Several other booths were staffed with researchers looking to recruit people of African descent for ongoing studies. A team from the Boston-based Dana Farber Cancer Institute attended the fair to provide free screenings for multiple myeloma and recruit patients for a examining why people of African descent are nearly three times more likely to develop the blood cancer.
“We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to talk about our study, but also increase awareness of myeloma, because although it is the second most common form of blood cancer, it's not well known,” said Maya Davis, a clinical research coordinator at Dana Farber.
“Often people are diagnosed when it's too late to treat. And so we want people to know the symptoms early so that people can get screened and get care before it's too late.”
The fair also included educational panels on a range of topics like mental health, youth suicide, substance use disorder, Alzheimer’s and dementia care, patient self-advocacy and diversity in research studies.
This is the Indiana Black and Minority Health Fair’s 36th year. The annual event is organized by the Indiana State Department of Health.
This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes the Indianapolis Recorder and Side Effects Public Media, a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Contact Farah at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.