Overcoming health disparities
But even amid all the innovative scientific advances and achievements, an old foe remained: racial inequities.
Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver opened a panel discussion on health disparities through the lens of history, psychology, law and medicine with a quick rundown of U.S. racial inequities in health, which he said are still “quite rampant.”
“In almost every disease category, African Americans die in excessively high numbers,” he said. “We get sicker at a younger age, we have diseases that are more morbid, more serious in terms of consequences and we die at a younger age. When it comes to diabetes and stroke and some cancers, we die at twice the rate. And these disparities exist in many other populations, as well.”
Importantly, he said, the differences cannot be explained by mutations that drive more aggressive disease.
“This is not because of genetic differences between African Americans and whites. Or Latinos and whites,” he said. “This is a result of the social inequities in our society that impact those populations.”
Oliver shared research showing how people of color are still subject to overt racial bias, unconscious racial bias and a slew of false beliefs, such as the longstanding myth that blacks tolerate pain better than whites (as a result, blacks are often under-prescribed pain medication, even when dealing with serious injuries like broken bones).
But there is good news, Oliver said.
“The important thing to understand about health inequities is that we can reduce them,” he said. “There’s a way to tackle the problem. We have to start off by understanding that racial inequities in health are a particular instance of social inequities in our society.”
At Fred Hutch, the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement works to reduce disparities in Washington state and elsewhere by partnering with community groups to bring science, research and cancer prevention to all people, particularly African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx people, Native Americans, Asian Americans, people in rural areas and other underserved groups. Ongoing projects encourage early cancer screenings, raise awareness about obesity, address the psychosocial aspects of cancer survivorship, and encourage healthy eating and fitness — efforts all designed to close the gap in health disparities and reduce diagnosis and mortality rates from cancers and other diseases. Learn more about Fred Hutch’s efforts to serve all populations at the May 15 Pathways to Equity Symposium. Registration opens April 1.
But there is much more to do, according to the health commissioner.
“We need to change the way we teach and practice medicine,” Oliver said. “And we also need to deal with the structural basis for these inequities.”
— Diane Mapes