See health in black, white and green

Minority groups, poor people more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes, heart disease

Minority groups, poor people more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes, heart disease

August 04, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

A report released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control suggests that racial and ethnic minorities and people with low incomes are more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than whites and people with higher incomes.

The 2007 National Healthcare Disparities Report, released in February 2008, examined the quality and access to health care for sub-populations throughout the U.S, looking mostly at 2004 and 2005 data. The report determined that disparities in quality and access for minority groups and poor populations had not been significantly reduced.

State officials say the national trends can be seen in Maryland.

"It's happening everywhere," said CDC spokeswoman Rhonda K. Smith.

Smith said health disparities have been around for centuries, though progress toward eliminating the disparities has been slow.

"Here we are in 2008 and we certainly haven't made any progress," Smith said. "The big question is why."

So why do some demographic groups have higher levels of certain diseases and health problems?


"It's a simple question with a complicated answer," said Dr. Benedict Truman, associate director for science at the CDC's Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

CDC and state health officials say part of solving the problem comes down to convincing people to changing their lifestyles. But health disparities are also tied to a complex set of social determinants, such as access to care.

Take diabetes as an example, said Dr. Edward Gregg, chief epidemiology and statistics of the CDC's division of diabetes translation.

According to data from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, blacks were nearly twice as likely to die from diabetes than whites in 2005. According to state data, blacks died of diabetes at a rate of 43.1 per 100,000 people, compared with 21 per every 100,000 for whites. The disparity persists nationally, as well, Gregg said.

Poverty leads to inequality

There are things people can do to lower their risk for diabetes, like exercising regularly and eating well, Gregg said. But sometimes, this is easier said than done, particularly for people with low-income levels, he said.

Most often, the cheapest way to feed a family is with unhealthy food, like fast foods and highly processed foods, Gregg said. And if you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, going for leisurely strolls or sending your kids to the park isn't a viable option, he said.

Truman said poverty tends to be more concentrated in ethnic populations, which is one reason racial groups are more at risk for certain diseases.

Other social determinants such as gender, lack of insurance and where you live - whether it's in the city or in the countryside - put certain populations at greater risk for certain health problems, Truman said.

State addresses the problem

Dr. Carlessia Hussein, director of Minority Health and Health Disparities department, a division of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said strategies for eliminating disparities should include targeting at-risk groups.

"I'm concerned we do too much of the shotgun approach - shooting out a bunch of resources and hoping it gets dispersed throughout the community," Hussein said.

The state has stepped up its efforts, Hussein said. In 2004, the state created a central office - the department of Minority Health and Health Disparities - to address health disparities in the state. The office has come up with plans to target at-risk groups, Hussein said.

Local initiatives

Locally, health care providers are coming up with their own programs.

Last spring Washington County Hospital used grant money to spearhead a program targeting young African American women, hospital spokeswoman Nicole Jovel said. The program, Sisters Helping Sisters, was intended for females ages 12 to 24 who were considered overweight or obese. The program's Saturday sessions included classes on nutrition, physical activity and group sessions.

Jovel said the hospital recently received a grant to establish an outreach program to raise awareness about the importance of prostate cancer screening for men 45 and older. According to press material provided by Jovel, the program will target the black community because black men are more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men.

The Frederick County Health Department held programs this past spring raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. According to press material, the program targeted young women, particularly black and Hispanic women.

Truman said research has shown that ground-level programs that target specific groups, coupled with universally available programs, are effective in improving health conditions.

Signs of success

Hussein said progress has been made on the state level, pointing to the number of cancer deaths as an example. According to state data, the number of blacks who died of cancer went from a rate of 246 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 208 per 100,000 in 2005, reducing the disparity between blacks and whites by 51 percent.

Gregg said that while getting rid of disparities on a broader level was possible, it is not something that will happen overnight.

"It's not all doom and gloom," Gregg said, "but we've got a long way to go."

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