If at your next check-up your physician inquires about your personal life, takes more time to explain proper drug usage and tries to engage you in a teach-back method, don’t be alarmed. He or she is simply implementing techniques learned at last week’s conference on improving health care, aimed at reducing health-care disparities in Chicago.

More than 20 Chicago medical and public health organizations came together to provide an interactive approach to the health disparity problem in the city. They were taught to pay more attention to cultural influences on health, low levels of health literacy in the public and how even the smallest of biases can affect quality of care.

In Cook County, for example, asthma mortality, which is preventable, is four to six times higher for African Americans and Hispanics than for Caucasians.

Few of the physicians, nurses, social workers and public health officials at the conference were unaware of this information, and disgruntled murmurs of familiarity erupted around the room as they were presented with sobering statistics.

“Those of us who have been working in the field have known for quite some time that there were problems,” said Dr. Cynthia Lopez, the immediate past president of the Institute of Medicine-Chicago. “Racial and ethnic disparities in health care exist. No question, no debate, it’s real.”

Part of the problem, however, is figuring out how to change this reality. Joel Massel, executive director of the Chicago Asthma Consortium, said the goal of the meeting was not to just provide Chicago’s medical community with information, but to leave the meeting with an action plan.

“We need action, with measures of success, for this meeting to be a success,” Massel said.

Part of that action demands that providers and practitioners become more culturally competent, be more aware of the dearth of health literacy, and teach current and future medical professionals to leave biases behind at the exam room door. Of course, in order to see the success Massel is seeking, the action plan has to actually be implemented.

“[This conference] helped me identify pre-existing social and cultural [data] that may help me to address the problems that the patients come in with, which may be affecting their outcomes. Things like jobs, unidentified hypertension and safety,” said Northwestern Memorial trauma surgeon Marie Crandall.

“One thing I’m going to make sure to do,” she added, “is to help integrate population health and public health into our medical school curriculum, making sure medical students and physicians are aware of this.”

Chicago Department of Public Health Regional Supervisor Mary Marcano emphasized that teaching the newfound knowledge is the key to reducing racial health disparities.

“If everyone here shares the information that they received back in the community that can go a long way,” said Marcano.

“This is only the beginning,” Massel said. The Chicago Asthma Consortium, along with its partners, is already planning a follow-up meeting in the spring to put together a grass-roots action plan, along with an additional meeting in the fall to measure the success of these programs.

For now, however, Chicago doctors are beginning with baby steps-changing the way they interact with patients and stepping up the cultural training of medical staff-to start making a dent in some of the city’s most persistent health disparities.