April is National Minority Health Month. We all know that any cause that is given a month is an issue that requires awareness and – more often than not – action. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has declared that “despite the progress our nation has made over the past 50 years, racial and ethnic minorities still lag behind the general population on many health fronts.”
Recent news stories back up HHS’s claims, though few would argue with it in the first place since it’s been substantiated through various industry studies. A Chicago nursing home serving a mostly Latino population is under investigation stemming from complaints by both families and patients of wrongful death and understaffing.
Other differences in healthcare speak to biological predispositions. Hepatitis B, the main cause in liver cancer, disproportionately affects Asians and Pacific Islanders. A recent HPV study of white and black students found that though the number of sexual partners and infection were similar between the two groups, black female participants were less likely to respond to treatment. The University of South Carolina of Columbia researchers say this could point to a need to address the way black women are tested and treated for HPV.
Differences in care stemming from a lack of funds and biological predispositions are well-known factors in minority healthcare disparities. Many organizations are aware and have implemented plans to combat the issue. In fact, HHS has seriously boosted its efforts to raise awareness this year, picking the theme Health Equity Can’t Wait: Act Now in Your CommUNITY and issuing its first-ever HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.
An Equity of Care study – “Eliminating Health Care Disparities” – cites positive examples in minority healthcare such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which implemented four-hour training sessions, opened seven patient-centered medical homes and employed bilingual patient navigators. The efforts to provide better primary care reduced emergency room admissions by 10 percent.
It’s promising news that the government and providers are making strides to close the gap in minority care. However, organizational-wide change does not always effect individual behavior.
One of the saddening stories this week followed up on a 2008 study conducted by the University of Washington. UW’s Implicit Association Test showed that most doctors preferred white patients over black patients, with only black doctors as the exception showing preference to neither group. Researcher Janice Sabin said that it was important, however, “to not leave the impression that this necessarily affects behavior because we really don’t know.”
Last month, the same researchers issued a new study building off its 2008 study. They found that pediatricians who preferred whites to blacks issued better pain management treatment to white patients than to black patients with the same condition.
Sabin said that the attitudes are subtle but pervasive and “because these are unconscious attitudes, doctors aren’t aware that their racial attitudes may affect their treatment decisions.”