Easy access to quality health care and the knowledge to make healthy decisions should be available to all Americans, regardless of race or economic standing, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders told an audience at the Kent Student Center Ballroom Tuesday.
Elders, the first African-American and woman to hold the post, emphasized that point throughout the evening as she spoke as part of Kent State University's Black History Month celebration.
"You cannot educate if (people) are not healthy and we cannot keep them healthy if they're not educated," she said. "We have a health illiterate society and we're not educating them."
Every year U.S. children spend 11,000 hours learning how to read, write and do arithmetic, 12,000 hours watching television, but only 46 hours of health education, Elders said.
"We need comprehensive health education in grade schools. We need to teach them about nutrition, exercise, drugs and drinking. We should be teaching them," she said.
One of the major problems with American's health care system is it focuses more on treating illness rather than preventing it, Elders said.
"We've got the best sick care system in the world. The sicker we are, the better we doctor, but we don't provide comprehensive, universal, equitable health care. If you don't have money, the sicker you are, you can get the very best health care. But poor people often end up at the doctor much later, often too late," she said, adding 99.1 percent of the country's health care money is spent on sick care while less than one percent is spent on preventative care, like immunizations.
Since 1970, America's children have been getting poorer while the gap between the haves and have nots has widened, Elders said.
In 1990, one in five American children were poor. The number grew in 1995 to one in four children who were poor, according to Elders, who said the number grows to one in two for minority children, while only one in 20 European children are poor.
"Children who are poor belong to the '5-H Club' They're hungry every night in the richest country in the world," she said. "Some of them are homeless _ when mothers are homeless so are their children. They're hugless. Some children find it easier to find drugs than hugs. And they're hopeless."
Elders added poor children are often "healthless" as the United States is only one of two countries that doesn't provide universal health care for its citizens _ South Africa is the other.
"In our country, every criminal has a right to a lawyer, but we don't feel every sick person has a right to a doctor," she said.
As the member of a poor, black family in Arkansas, Elders said the first time she saw a doctor was as a college freshman.
"Blacks have been at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to health care. Health care is about economics, it's about education, it's about jobs, it's about transportation, it's about schools. It takes all of these things to make health care."
Elders, who is now a pediatric endocrinologist, was named surgeon general in 1993, but was asked to resign little more than a year later because she spoke out on controversial issues such as masturbation and the legalization of drugs, she said.
"I loved being your surgeon general," she said. "I did it the best way I knew how. If I had to do it over again, I'd do it the same way."