Health disparities among racial and ethnic groups have become even more apparent this past year.
COVID-19 disproportionately affects patients from ethnic and racial minority groups. Throughout the pandemic, these populations have had higher rates of both infection and death. As a result, this year’s National Minority Health Month theme, #vaccineready, focuses on getting at-risk populations protected against COVID-19.
Root Causes of Health Disparities
“This disparity is rooted in historic systemic inequities in the social determinants of health, such as income, access to care, education, environment, and racial justice,” says Carol Mendez, MD, a family medicine physician at Summit Health. “To help, we can connect with communities adversely affected and support them in creating systemic change needed to improve their health outcomes. We can promote access to reliable information and vaccines.”
The pandemic has had particularly devastating effects on Black American and Brown communities. A recent study of two states found that Black American women were three times more likely than white men to die from COVID-19 infection. Research has also shown that Black American and Hispanic populations receive smaller shares of vaccinations when compared to their share of cases and deaths.
Ethnic and racial minority groups also have higher rates of comorbidities associated with severe COVID-19 infection when compared to non-Hispanic whites. For example:
- Black Americans have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.
- Black American children have a 500 percent higher death rate from asthma.
- Latinx have higher rates of poorly-controlled high blood pressure.
- Nearly 45 percent of Latinx people aged 20 years and older are obese.
- American Indians and Alaska Natives report higher rates of HIV infection, diabetes, and obesity.
Working Towards Health Equality
There are many ways society can work together to reduce health disparities. Health education, campaigns for early detection, and managing chronic conditions are only part of the equation, says Alyssa Lord, Vice President of Value Based Care for the Northeast Region at Summit Health. The experience or environment of care also has a tremendous impact.
“This means having people who look like you, providing care. It is building trust between providers and patients. It is creating relationships with respected members of the community to help serve as ambassadors for care. It is reducing barriers such as cost and the times of appointments. It is listening and partnering with patients to understand the ways they will be most engaged and what their barriers are,” she explains.
Preventive care is also essential in addressing comorbidities in minority populations. Research shows that patients in racially and ethnically diverse populations often focus more on acute care than preventive care. Patients should not only see a provider when they are sick but also when they are well.
“There is a plethora of data that shows that if we invest in communities, improve policies, and address the needs of our populations we can start to make a change. That change must be accompanied by a paradigm shift in values and norms, and recognition that living a life of health is a right for all persons, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, or education,” says Ms. Lord.