All those who think the United States is “post-racial” might want to take a look at the findings of a new study that underscores the starkness of racial healthcare disparities across a wide range of measures.
Black women across the country experience poor health outcomes in comparison to their white counterparts, and other ethnic and racial minorities experience disparities as well, including Asians and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and members of the Latino community. The fact that this troubling trend persists despite growing awareness in and outside the medical community speaks to a need for widespread health reform. But what’s the best strategy for fighting racial health care disparities?
In 2010, members of the Black community received worse care than whites across 40% of health care measures. It was even worse for members of the Hispanic and Latino community, who had worse treatment in 60% of the measures used, and for poor people, who experienced worse care in 80% of cases — and it’s worth noting that there is considerable overlap between racial minorities and poverty due to issues of systemic injustice in the United States.
Infants born to Black women are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to die or experience severe complications than those born to white women. Black women are actually less likely than white women to get breast cancer, yet die at a higher rate — because they have reduced access to screening and treatment. Rates of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses related to poor environment and limited access to health care are much higher among minority communities.
The CDC notes ongoing disparities in health care access where race is a clear factor, even when data are corrected for other potential influences. To be a racial minority in America is to have a higher degree of difficulty when it comes to accessing health care, and more trouble when it comes to getting necessary treatments and support. People of color with chronic pain conditions, for example, are more likely to be accused of drug-seeking behavior and denied treatment that could improve their quality of life. For Black women in particular, sitting at the intersection of sexism and racism, accessing reliable and compassionate health care can be an uphill battle — something difficult in the best of times, but even more difficult for people experiencing health care crises who need immediate help.
With the entire medical community aware of this issue, along with policy organizations, research groups and government agencies, why do such radical racial disparities continue to be a problem in health care in the United States? One issue is that racism itself is a pervasive issue in the United States, and while the country is experiencing incremental change to address its racial tensions, that change isn’t happening overnight — and sometimes seems to take two steps backwards for every step forward.
In addition to being a nationwide issue, racism also affects care providers and other professionals. While doctors and other practitioners may swear to provide care in a nondiscriminatory, nonjudgmental way, oaths aren’t necessarily enough to overcome socialization and deep-held beliefs about minorities.
The picture isn’t all grim, though. The Kaiser Family Foundation recommends that providers be educated about the issue of racial disparities so they can be more aware, and that this include cultural competency training and awareness to address gaps in knowledge. Expansion of health care access through insurance programs, clinics and increasing the number of providers in traditionally underserved areas is also important, to ensure that people who need health services can access them regardless of geographic location, class, and race.
Meanwhile, the American Medical Association recommends incorporating racial justice into its code of ethics — and reporting physicians who appear to be acting in violation of ethical bylaws. The AMA has also committed to participating in ongoing studies on racial disparities in health care and contributing to the larger body of work involved in fighting racism in health care.
For people of color in the health care system right now, these disparities are immediate and painful. Conducting research, outreach and direct service programs as recommended by professional organizations, however, could change the landscape of medical care rapidly, and for the better, making it possible for all human beings to get the health care they deserve.
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