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Health Disparities

What Are Disparities?

The diversity of the American population is one of the nation's greatest assets. However, one of our greatest challenges is reducing the profound disparities in health status of our racial and ethnic minority, rural, low-income, and other underserved populations.

Health disparities are the focus of the NIH's National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). The Institute provides the leading edge in enhancing the scientific knowledge base and designing interventions to improve health outcomes to reduce and ultimately lead to the elimination of health disparities.

Health disparities refer to significant differences in the health status and outcomes of different groups of people. According to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, some groups of people have higher rates of certain diseases, and more deaths and suffering from them, compared to others. These groups may be based on:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Immigrant status
  • Disability
  • Sex or gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Geography
  • Income

To better understand the context of disparities, it helps to learn more about the U.S. population.

  • Approximately 33 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 100 million people, identified themselves as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority population.
  • About 51 percent, or 154 million people, were women.
  • Approximately 12 percent, or 36 million people not living in nursing homes or other residential care facilities, had a disability.
  • An estimated 70.5 million people lived in rural areas (23 percent of the population), while roughly 233.5 million people lived in urban areas (77 percent).
  • An estimated four percent of the U.S. population ages 18 to 44 identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Despite notable improvements in the overall health of the United States during the past two decades, there continues to be striking disparities in the burden of illness and death experienced by African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians and Alaska Natives, and Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

For example, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, accounting for 32.3 percent of all deaths in 2009 and affecting some minorities more than others. In 2009, the overall rate of death due to heart disease was 236 per 100,000 deaths. The rates were 281.4 for white males, compared with 387.0 for African American males. In addition, avoidable deaths disproportionately occur among non-Hispanic blacks and residents of the South. For example, avoidable deaths are particularly high among black males; in 2010, the black male rate was approximately 80 percent higher than that of white males and black females.

Why Do Health Disparities Exist?

Disparities exist in nearly every aspect of health, including quality of health care, access to care, utilization of health care, and health outcomes. These disparities are believed to be the result of the complex interaction among biologic factors such as genetic variations, social and environmental factors, and specific health behaviors. Disparities in health care persist even when the data are controlled for gender, race and ethnicity, age, and socioeconomic status.

A health care workforce that reflects the diversity of patients and provides culturally competent care can contribute to reducing these disparities. Community health workers play a unique role in implementing culturally competent health promotion and disease prevention programs.

Read More "Health Disparities" Articles

Health Disparities / What Are Disparities? / Research

Spring 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 1 Page 6