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National Minority Health Month: Bridging the Divide in Health Equity

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:200:]]In April 1915, Dr. Booker T. Washington sent a call to action, via prominent African American newspapers, calling on local health departments, schools, churches, businesses, professional associations, and the most influential organizations in the African American community to "pull together" and "unite… in one great National Health Movement” to be called "National Negro Health Week." Washington thought health was critical to progress and equity in all other things, stating, "Without health and long life, all else fails." Today, his vision has transformed into National Minority Health Month, celebrated every April.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Minority Health and the National Minority Quality Forum partner in April to distribute materials and organize events and activities throughout the U.S. These activities aim to empower local communities to eradicate the disproportionate burden of premature death and preventable illness in minority populations through prevention, early detection, and control of disease complications. This year’s theme is “Prevention is Power: Taking Action for Health Equity.”

Health equity is defined as “the attainment of the highest level of health for all people,” which is a vision we are still striving to achieve. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders experience higher rates of illness and death from chronic health conditions when compared against those of the rest of the U.S. population. For example:

  • African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to have diabetes as white individuals.
  • Hispanic Americans account for 20.8 percent of deaths due to heart disease although this population represents only about 16.7 percent of the U.S. total population.
  • Chinese Americans are six (6) times at higher risk of dying from liver cancer from Hepatitis B compared to white individuals, while Korean Americans are at eight (8) times higher risk, and Vietnamese Americans are at 13 times higher risk.

Many factors contribute to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic health disparities, including:

  • inadequate access to health care
  • poor quality of care
  • community features (such as poverty and violence) and
  • personal behaviors

These factors are often associated with underserved racial and ethnic minority groups, individuals who have experienced economic obstacles, those with disabilities and individuals living within medically underserved communities.  Consequently, individuals living in both urban and rural areas may experience health disparities.

Healthy People Initiative

Most associate “disparities” with a racial or ethnic deficiency or overabundance. However, it is important to note that in health and healthcare, disparities exist beyond this narrow definition. In fact, the HHS, through its Healthy People 2020 initiative has broadened the definition of disparity to “a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”

In 1979, HHS began setting science-based, 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans, known as its Healthy People initiative. Each decade since, HHS has been moving the United States towards eradicating health disparities by expanding the reach of its overarching goals in 2000 and 2010, respectively to:

  • reduce health disparities among Americans
  • eliminate, not just reduce, health disparities

Now in Healthy People 2020, the current goal is to achieve health equity, eliminate disparities, and improve the health of all groups. And nearly halfway through this 10-year span, the U.S. is making great strides forward by focusing on 12 topic high-priority health topic areas that address 26 leading health indicators (LHIs) including:

  • Access to Health Services
  • Clinical Preventive Services
  • Environmental Quality
  • Injury and Violence
  • Maternal, Infant and Child Health
  • Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity
  • Oral Health
  • Reproductive and Sexual Health
  • Social Determinants (home, school, workplace, neighborhood, and community)
  • Substance Abuse
  • Tobacco

As of March 2014, progress generally has been positive toward achieving the Healthy People 2020 targets for LHIs with 14 (53.9%) having either met their target or shown improvement.

But there is still more work to be done.

Each of us has been touched by a chronic condition — heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, asthma. Grappling with a personal diagnosis or one even for a loved one can be unbearable. The realization that in the 21st century – with all its advances in medicine and technology, these conditions disproportionately impact minority groups – is unfathomable. During National Minority Health Month and beyond, let’s contribute to advancing health and long life for all by:

  • Leading by example. Go for routine health screenings and encourage your loved ones, neighbors and peers to do the same.
  • Educating yourself and your loved ones about chronic health conditions and prevention measures.
  • Sharing health resource information.
  • Embracing cultural competency when communicating about health to people of different cultures.

Remember: An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.