Racial Disparities & Public Health

November 17, 2020 12:56 PM

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Black and white image of stethoscope. Photo courtesy of Hush Naidoo via Unsplash.

Black and white image of stethoscope. Photo courtesy of Hush Naidoo via Unsplash.

It’s time we talk about racial disparities in healthcare. Racial disparity, the differences in how people are able to live because of their race, touches many different parts of society. This is especially seen in public health issues, where people of color have been exposed to higher rates of diseases compared to those who are white. Racial disparities in public health are connected to many factors called social determinants of health. Some of these factors include socioeconomic status or economic stability, access to social institutions like education and health care, and the relationship individuals have to their neighborhood and community. Racism plays a major role in preventing people of color from getting proper access to high quality medical care.

Sofia Carratala, a Special Assistant working at the renowned public policy institution, Center for American Progress, says, “12.1% of Africans Americans under the age of 65 reported having no health insurance coverage.” It seems like more and more people of color are dying, either through the coronavirus or other diseases. It hurts to see my friends impacted by such challenging health issues, and I have felt this direct impact in my own life.

My mom doesn’t have good income and she doesn’t work from home. I believe my mom is not the only one commuting; in fact, I see many people in my community going back and forth to work in these difficult times. For many, it’s impossible to stop working, and hard-working people have to risk exposure to a highly contagious and dangerous disease in order to make a living. Many individuals working these tough jobs would prefer to work from home, but they are unable. In many cases, due to lack of opportunity or as a direct result of institutionalized racism, people are passed over for jobs they deserve.  

Racism is still ongoing, and because of this, teens should pay more attention to their health. Lots of people’s health may be deteriorating right now and many might not even know it. Sofia Carratala points out, “African Americans have the highest mortality rate for all cancers combined compared with any other racial and ethnic group,” pointing out an endemic problem in healthcare and one that points directly to health and healthcare disparity fueled by institutionalized racism.

As Dr. Lisa Cooper, a public health physician at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says, “To address health disparities, we need to know why they exist. They're not due to one single factor. They're the result of policy-making decisions we make as a society. They’re due to the environment, health education, insurance and access to care, access to healthy food and stress. Those stresses are actually experienced disproportionately by people who are poor, and people who have been historically disadvantaged in this society.” Dr. Cooper says it best with these inspiring words. We must all join together and work to create a better way to solve our needs.

One example of a disease that we can tackle is diabetes. We can work on preventing the onset of many diabetes cases before they happen. This would be less costly, since preventing the disease could ultimately help keep insurance costs and medical bills to a minimum. Certain diseases like diabetes can be the direct result of poor nutrition and a lack of awareness when it comes to healthy eating. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that around 40% of Americans are obese and about half regularly take at least one prescription drug. The onset of diabetes instantly leads to additional personal challenges and costs. Individuals must increase visits with healthcare professionals, they face costly insurance premiums, and they must deal with the logistics of buying and using insulin. If possible, it is important to prevent the challenges that come with diabetes from happening early on.

Black females are highly affected by diabetes, especially compared to white populations. Sofia Carratala from Center for American Progress says, “80% of African American women are overweight or obese compared to 65% of non-Hispanic white women.” With this statistic in mind, it is important to consider not only the health of these women, but that of their future children and families as well. Not being able to figure out a proper diet or find an appropriate provider can keep entire families in the dark and at risk for complicated health problems in the future.

In addition to identifying and preventing ongoing health challenges, it is also critically important to hold healthcare providers and facilities accountable for equitable treatment of Black patients. Oftentimes, providers assume Black patients have a higher pain tolerance. As a result, many people of color are more likely to be denied access to the same pain treatments received by white patients.

In truth, people of color feel the exact same pain tolerance as any white patient. I don’t know who came up with the idea that they do not, but this belief is a complete falsehood. The belief that there are any biological differences between Black and white pain tolerances is medically untrue, and demonstrates ignorance and racism in healthcare. Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a study on how white medical students view both Black and white patients. The study, published in 2016, found that white medical students altered the way they reported pain based on perceived biological differences. Reading a study’s findings such as this, it is no wonder more and more people of color keep getting diagnosed with all of these diseases and dying.

In addition, hospitals that were designed and built to support medically underserved communities were found to be vastly under-resourced. The American Academy of Family Physicians made a statement that “hospitals and clinics, which were once designated for racial and ethnic minorities, continue to experience significant financial constraints and are often under-resourced and improperly staffed. These issues result in inequities in access to and quality of healthcare and are major contributors to racial and ethnic health disparities.” It is clear from this statement that much more work still needs to be done to better distribute healthcare resources and ensure medical equity and lessen the effects of racial disparities in healthcare.

People of color have long been underserved and overlooked when it comes to health. They’ve been impacted negatively on a greater scale due to beliefs, environmental issues, and access to care. Health inequity and racial disparity persist, and racism must be pursued as a public health crisis to make changes and bring about greater access in care for all people.

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