This post is by Alyssa Aguilera, NYLPI’s Health Justice Community Organizer.
Late last month I attended my first Mount Sinai Community Roundtable – a monthly convening of various community stakeholders interested in the happenings of the Harlem-based academic-medical center. These meetings, according to Mount Sinai’s own Community Service Plan, are held to “keep its pulse on the needs of the East Harlem and Central Harlem communities”. A worthy effort indeed, I was interested to see how the hospital would approach the invariably difficult town-gown relationship between a highly-touted medical center and its surrounding neighborhood, which despite proximity still remains a medically underserved community.
Last month’s meeting was to focus on the new Tisch Cancer Institute – “a state-of-the-art, patient-oriented, comprehensive cancer and research facility” slated to open in early 2011. On hand to explain the Institute was its director Dr. Steven Burakoff who led the group through a presentation highlighting the research, education, and care that would be provided at the Institute.
Funded in part by a $40 million gift from James and Meryl Tisch, the construction of the Institute is part of a larger expansion plan currently in motion at Mount Sinai. This initiative, led by Mr. Tisch, is being called The Campaign for Mount Sinai and is an aggressive and ambitious capital campaign aiming to raise $1 billion in private donations to improve the entire medical center.
What I found quite interesting in both the presentation and when perusing the Mount Sinai website, was the emphasis on “translational medicine” and the creation of “institutes” where this practice will be honed. Translational medicine, although multi-faceted, basically promotes the idea that “new treatments and research knowledge [should] actually reach the patients or populations for whom they are intended and [be] implemented correctly.” So for example, the Tisch Cancer Institute will house both the research and treatment of cancer allowing for mutual access between researchers, practitioners, and patients that will hopefully produce accelerated positive results for all those involved.
Mount Sinai is planning to create institutes for 14 different medical areas – The Black Family Stem Cell Institute, Friedman Brain Institute, Experimental Therapeutics Institute, etc. – and all are part of this ten-year expansion project.
In addition to the presentation on the Tisch Cancer Institute, the community roundtable also featured Professor Lina Jandorf, Director of Cancer Community Outreach in the Department of Oncological Sciences. She spoke about her work to reduce ethnic and racial disparities by improving education, screening and treatment protocols for communities of color in Harlem. Her own research emphasizes the need for this type of work. She writes:
Cancer mortality and incidence rates among minorities in [East Harlem] are 30% higher than elsewhere in New York City (NYC). For example, prostate and colorectal cancer incidence among adults aged 45-64 years living in this community is significantly higher than the average for NYC. Women in [East Harlem] are diagnosed with breast cancer at later stages of disease than are women from other NYC neighborhoods. Malignant neoplasms are the second leading cause of death in [East Harlem] after heart disease, with an age-adjusted rate of 147 per 100,000 when compared with 91 per 100,000 for the rest of NYC.
The lack of access to cancer prevention and treatment in low-income communities of color is unfortunately no surprise and I am happy to see that Ms. Jandorf and her colleagues at Mount Sinai are engaging in programming to help understand and ameliorate this somber public health reality. However, the lingering question I had throughout the presentation, and asked of Dr. Burakoff and Ms. Jandorf themselves, was this: It is great that the Tisch Cancer Institute is being constructed in a community so desperately in need of the care it provides, but what is Mount Sinai doing to grant access to the Institute for their neighbors many of whom are on Medicaid, are under-insured, or uninsured?
Their answer was not as straight-forward as I would have liked. They mostly just pointed to the community programs that are already available to the public. Dr. Burakoff said something interesting though, he said that as a hospital once they screen patients and detect cancer they have a responsibility to treat them. A vague answer, but I can assume that if the Institute had any plans to actually screen and treat low-income patients, they would have mentioned it at that time. Though just to be sure, I called a few days after the presentation to inquire about breast cancer treatment for a Medicaid beneficiary and was told they could be seen in the clinic setting, not the Institute itself.
So it seems more than likely that Mount Sinai will continue to deny access for low-income patients to the highest quality of care their facilities provide. They will regulate low-income patients to the clinic system, where they will get a lower quality of care (more on our work to end the two-tiered system of care in NYC academic-medical centers here), and the staggering health disparities in communities of color like East and Central Harlem will persist. Undoubtedly though, these new initiatives by Mount Sinai will allow them to rise in the ranks as one of the “best” hospitals in the country – well, for those who are lucky enough to have good private insurance.
Funny enough, Mount Sinai’s expansion project and institute model is all about breaking down walls: between the hard sciences and clinical medicine, between clinical medicine and patient outcomes, and between specialty areas in an attempt to tackle comorbidities often present in patients with chronic illness.
But despite millions of dollars, the recruitment of top faculty, and state-of-the art facilities, one big wall will still remain for low-income New Yorkers seeking cancer treatment at the Tisch Cancer Institute – the ability to afford it. And sadly, this treatment is one thing many New Yorkers cannot afford to live without.
 Woolf, Steven H., MD, MPH. “The Meaning of Translational Research and Why It Matters.” Journal of the American Medical Association 299(2) (2008): 211-3.
 Landorf, L and Fatone, A. and Borker, P.V. (2006) Creating alliances to improve cancer prevention and detection among urban medically underserved minority groups: The East Harlem Partnership for Cancer Awareness. Cancer. 107 (8). pp. 2043-2051.