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Norfolk seeks end to minority health disparities

Jordan Crawford | 10/3/2013, 12:20 p.m.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human has set a goal for the nation to end health disparities.

Public health experts have known about health disparities that afflict minorities more than their white counterparts for years. There have been many calls to end them and millions spent on research aimed at reducing them. Unfortunately, a deadline for eliminating disparities by 2010 has come and gone.

Black men still get prostate cancer at three times the rate of whites, three Black babies die before their first birthday for every white baby, and Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized because of asthma, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

New research published in the journal “Cancer” shows that black patients with kidney cancer have poorer survival rates than white patients.

And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that although there has been progress in breast cancer detection and treatment, Black women die of the disease more often than white women because of inequities in screening, follow-up and treatment.

“Portsmouth has the highest percentage of breast cancer deaths among black women,” said Dr. Mekbib Gemeda, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS). “Clearly, disparities between various racial and ethnic groups exist. And we have disparities between genders, and rural and urban communities, too. We’ve made progress in some areas, but it’s complicated. There are many things in the way we’ve structured our society that contribute to it. And if you’re going to address these problems, you have to do it comprehensively.”

An array of reasons

In addition to race and ethnicity, experts say reasons for health disparities include poverty, employment, lack of insurance, education, living in a rural area, access to transportation, lifestyle, culture, distrust of the medical community, food security, environmental threats, poor and unsafe housing, and inadequate access to health care.

“Race is an easy way to cut the pie and see stark differences, but there’s usually more to the story,” Gemeda said. “Take another layer and peel it back, and you see other social factors. There are disparities in healthcare delivery, too.”

Diabetes is one of the health conditions that affect minorities more than whites. Minorities and low-income groups have less access to care and the care they get can be “suboptimal,” according to the AHRQ.

“All Americans should have equal access to high-quality care,” the agency reported. “Instead, we find that minorities and poor people often face more barriers to care and receive poorer quality of care when they can get it.”

Ja’Neine Hodges of Norfolk said she witnessed a difference in care provision when a doctor asked her how long her father, who was born in Mississippi and spoke with a heavy accent, had suffered from a learning disability.

“I found myself explaining that because you can’t understand him, don’t assume that he’s unintelligent,” said Hodges, who has been diagnosed with prediabetes. “Because I was able to speak ‘well’, they didn’t get to put that stigma on me.”

Margaret Baumgarten, associate professor in family and community medicine at EVMS, said healthcare has work to do to improve delivery of services and addressing any environmental barriers that exist.