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Decades of Documented Health Care Disparities Have Not Brought About Policy Changes

The American Cancer Society recently came out with a new batch of statistics on cancer prevalence and death rates. While the news might appear positive overall and reflect advances in cancer treatments and screening technology, the United States continues to deliver the best care to wealthier, white citizens.  

The ACS’s news release touched on how race affects health care outcomes: 

"African American men have a 19 percent higher incidence rate and 37 percent higher death rate from all cancers combined than white men. African American women have a six percent lower incidence rate, but a 17 percent higher death rate than white women for all cancers combined." 

It isn’t only cancer. African-American men and women are twice as likely as whites to die of cerebrovascular disease or experience stroke, according to the National Institutes of Health. The rate of AIDS cases among African Americans is 10 times higher than for Whites, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the department of Health and Human Services. 

It’s a rare week when we don't see the release of a new study showing how health care lags for African Americans:

  • Blacks awaiting lung transplants more likely to die or be denied than whites
  • Blacks More Likely to Die of Severe Sepsis
  • Blacks, Hispanics less likely to get strong pain drugs in emergency rooms
  • Blacks in Poor Areas Less Likely to Be On Kidney Transplant Lists
  • Poorer Blood Pressure Control in Blacks With Heart Failure
  • Prostate Cancer More Likely To Return In Blacks Than Whites
  • Black Women Get Less Breast Cancer Treatment
  • Older blacks and Latinos still lag whites in controlling diabetes

And if you’re African American and living in the South, your health prospects are even bleaker. In a study presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in 2005 researchers reported that African Americans living in the South were at the greatest disadvantage for combating stroke. 

"When it comes to your risk of stroke, you get a penalty for being African American, you get a penalty for living in the South, and you get an 'extra' penalty for being an African American living in the South," George Howard, professor and chair of the biostatistics department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the conference.  

Howard’s team compared the stroke rates among the so-called "stroke belt" states including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia, with non-southern states with large black populations including California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Report after report from state and federal agencies, think tanks, non-profits, and universities have highlighted racial disparities not only as they apply to health care access but also in other areas like wages, home ownership, and education. UCLA’s Network for Multicultural Research on Health and Healthcare is the latest in a long line of programs created to study racial health care disparities. The UCLA group will also “mentor and develop a new generation of researchers with an expertise in health care disparities,” according to the announcement. 

But do we need more studies and more researchers to tell us what we already know? Isn’t that skirting the problem? 

We’ve known these disparities have existed for decades. They’ve been well documented. Government and academic institutions have created an industry out of studying disparities, but have taken no meaningful steps to address them. Until policymakers acknowledge America’s slavery legacy and commit to ending it, these gaps will never close.

Kathlyn Stone is an independent journalist in Minnesota and publishes, a health and science news site.  Click here to contact Ms. Stone. 


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April 17, 2008
Issue 273

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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