When the National Academies' Institute of Medicine released its report earlier this year documenting that minorities, regardless of income, education and access, were discriminated against in health care, many African Americans in the medical and health care fields simply yawned. "Tell me something I don't know" was the overriding sentiment among Black health care professionals and the Black community in general. For years, these professionals have been arguing the same thing, pointing out racial and ethnic disparities in access to quality health care, as well as disparities in incidence rates, mortality rates and treatments for certain illnesses. And in many cases, they have attributed those disparities to racial discrimination.
"To assume that the health care delivery system is somehow immune from the social factors that have shaped this society is inaccurate," says Dr. Stephen B. Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh.
For Thomas, the issue of health disparities is one of several racialized issues such as affirmative action and school desegregation by which the nation is polarized. "It is the same kind of racism that we saw when Blacks were in the streets being attacked by dogs and tire hoses," says Thomas, evoking the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "The struggle for freedom that began with lunch counters and sit-ins and the right to live where you want, is now being waged in our hospitals, in our clinics, in our neighborhoods."
Such rhetoric signals a strongly held conviction by Thomas and others in the medical and health care fields that the problem of racial and ethnic disparities in health care is the key civil rights issue of today.
"It is the political issue of the 21st century," says Amri Johnson, a trained epidemiologist and CEO of WellSolve Health Research Network, an Atlanta-based company that works to increase diversity in the health research work force and industry. Providing 100 percent equity in access, treatment, care and information in health care is no longer an option, Johnson says.
In labeling health inequities a civil rights issue, Thomas, Johnson and others emphasize it is an issue that extends beyond those individual minority communities disproportionately affected by certain diseases to the entire nation, and even the world.
Just as economists contend that the growing disparity in wealth between nations weakens the entire world, Thomas says the disparity in health between the "super-rich" and those on the "bottom rungs" weakens the entire nation.
Johnson agrees. "It is not just an issue for educational institutions, of the government, or the private or public sectors," he says. "Everybody is going to either be hurt or benefit from this."
ON THE ROAD TO REDUCING DISPARITIES
Recognizing the impact of health disparities on the entire nation, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched the Initiative to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health in 1998. The initiative targets six areas of health disparity, including cancer screening and management, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS and child and adult immunizations. HHS has adopted the ambitious goal of significantly reducing the disparities by 2010.
In each of the initiative's target areas, communities of color are disproportionately affected. For instance, African American men and women have a cancer death rate about 35 percent higher than Whites. African American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than women of any other racial or ethnic group, and the prostate cancer mortality rate for Black men is more than twice that of White men. Similarly, in 1999, rates of death from cardiovascular disease were 29 percent higher among African American adults than White adults, and death rates from strokes were 40 percent higher. …