The Healthcare Divide

Study shows minorities receive inferior healthcare services

There is a disparity in the quality of healthcare African Americans receive, according to a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The study, Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, which was conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), argues that racial and ethnic minorities tend to get second-rate healthcare–in the way of cancer treatments, cardiac medications, bypass surgery, HIV treatments, kidney dialysis, and kidney transplants–and are instead offered less appealing alternatives such as lower limb amputations for diabetes sufferers. And racism on the part of healthcare providers, the report concludes, undercuts the quality of medical treatment these patients receive.

“This report really should be a wake-up call to the healthcare profession to attend to things that are unpleasant to think about,” says Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, co-vice chair of the IOM committee. “But at the same time, I think it should be heartening to members of communities of color that the healthcare profession is willing to take this on, to acknowledge where it may need to make change, and [then to] make those changes.”

The report collected the results of several previous studies relevant to treatment disparities. One study of Medicare patients found that the frequency of amputation among African Americans is 3.6 times that of the whites. Such disparities are attributed to, among other factors, a lack of minority physicians–only 3.9% of U.S. physicians are black. Fewer long lasting doctor-patient relationships among minorities, and their tendency to have low-end health insurance coverage are also contributing factors.

To remedy the disparity, the head of the National Medical Association (NMA), the leading professional organization of African American physicians, says resources must keep flowing to medical schools at historically black colleges and universities such as Howard, Meharry, Charles R. Drew, and Morehouse. “We also must make sure that African Americans and other people of color are equally represented on the boards for admission to majority medical schools,” says Dr. Lucille Perez, president of the NMA.

To help increase awareness, the NMA plans to issue report cards on insurance companies’ health plans by 2004. Insurers will be rated on their willingness to pay for preventive strategies and treatments for conditions that concern African Americans such as diabetes and heart disease. An NMA partnership with the Second Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is promoting health awareness in North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland A.M.E. churches.

A change of this nature also requires legislation on the political front. “Looking at the 2003 budget is a good place to start because there are cuts that are unacceptable in health professions education,” says Congresswoman Donna M. Christian-Christensen, (D-Virgin Islands), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Braintrust. The CBC seeks to restore funding for the Health Careers Opportunity Program, which encourages schoolchildren to study sciences to become doctors, nurses, and technicians. What’s more, Democrats are calling for prescription drug coverage and are raising Medicare provider fees. “Black physicians are really hard hit,” by Medicare cuts in doctor fees, Christian-Christensen notes.

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