Local doctor aims to close health care gap

Dr. Thaddeus Bell

Thaddeus Bell, family doctor and long-time track and field runner, is a tireless promoter. He wants athletes to strive hard and cross the finish line. And he wants more young blacks to aspire to careers in medicine.

More black doctors are needed to improve the health disparities between blacks and whites, he said. But Bell is not just a good talker; he's putting money where his mouth is.

The Thaddeus John Bell Scholarship Endowment, part of his "Closing the Gap in Health Care" initiative, is the solution. It provides financial assistance to qualified black students who want to attend any of the Medical University's six colleges.

To help make his point, he is honoring prominent Charleston dentist Larry Ferguson at a gala dinner Saturday at Trident Technical College.

Health disparities between blacks and whites in the United States are pronounced. Blacks are much more likely than whites to develop life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and HIV, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Blacks constitute just over 30 percent of South Carolina's population, though they represent just 5 percent of the state's physicians, 6 percent of its dentists, 9 percent of its registered nurses and 4 percent of its pharmacists, according to the state Office of Research and Statistics.

Bell wants to change that.

The idea for the endowment was sparked two years ago by North Charleston-based insurer Select Health and developed in cooperation with Bell, then associate dean for diversity at the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Medicine, and Marlon Kimpson, an attorney at Motley Rice.

The scholarship endowment, designed to assist students attending MUSC, is administered by the Coastal Community Foundation.

By encouraging more blacks to become doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists, organizers hope to chip away at the racial differences in health care delivery and improve medical outcomes for blacks.

Nearly $100,000 was raised last year. This year, organizers hope to do better. The short-term goal is to fund the endowment with $1 million, Bell said. To be eligible, students must be black residents of South Carolina who are committed to working in the state.

Wilber Johnson, an attorney at Young, Clement, Rivers, is helping organize the scholarship gala. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and Medical University President Ray Greenberg are co-chairmen for the event.

Ferguson, the event's honoree, majored in chemistry at The Citadel and graduated from the Medical University's Dental College in 1979. He has been cleaning and fixing teeth for 28 years.

Ferguson joined the Air Force, where he served as a dental technician, an experience that planted the seeds of his future career.

Good dental health often correlates to good general health, Ferguson, Bell and others say.

Oral disease has been linked to heart disease, bacterial pneumonia, diabetes, early birth and underweight newborns, Ferguson said.

For example, periodontal disease, which affects the lining between bone and teeth, raises white blood cell counts, which can compromise the body's immune system, he said.

Increased plaque in the mouth can correspond to high cholesterol in the blood stream.

Bacteria that migrates from the mouth to the blood to the birth canal can provoke premature contractions and birth, he said.

Ferguson has completed his term as the first black president of the South Carolina Dental Association, and has served on the board of the American Dental Association Foundation. He helped start a free clinic on the East Side (now defunct), and has been active in the community for years.

It is this activism, untiring promotion of good health, and commitment to the new generation of doctors and dentists that is being recognized by Bell Scholarship Endowment organizers.

"The thing I don't want to stop doing is getting young people interested in dentistry," he said.