Health Disparities

While tragic events like the 2005 post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans bring the issue of inequality to the headlines every once in a while, it’s more often a problem that lives under the radar of most people. Yet as the gaps between rich and poor continue to grow wider and wider and health-care coverage falls further into crisis, there’s no better time to take a deeper look at the important links that exist between race, class and health.

There is no doubt that health disparities exist in the United States: It’s clear when you look at a number of important health outcomes. African Americans die from heart disease and stroke at a greater rate than any other group. They’re also more likely to have hypertension, and along with American Indians, share the highest rates of diabetes.

For cancer, the picture is much the same. African Americans experience cancer rates that are more than twice as high as American Indians, about 50 percent higher than Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 10 percent higher than whites. Racial and ethnic differences in cancer mortality are even more pronounced, with African Americans again having the highest rates.

Looking outside of race, factors like income and education level – so called socioeconomic factors – also have a large influence on health, so much so that many in the health field call poverty itself a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes are also higher in those with lower income and less education.

Why do these disparities exist? The simple answer is that there are a lot of different reasons. Unequal access to quality health care and screening services is one very important one. But there are other important factors, including education, language and living/work environments, just to name a few. Tied together with such things, race and income are also often linked to important health risk factors, like smoking, being less active and being overweight.

Clearly, the issue of health disparities is very complex and won’t be solved overnight. But, the situation is far from hopeless. Awareness of the issue is on the rise, and state and local communities are starting to take concrete steps to fix the problem.

At the Siteman Cancer Center, we are working to reduce cancer disparities through our Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD). The program, which aims to reduce disparities in cancer education, prevention and treatment through a variety of programs, is funded by a five-year, $4.27 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.