Why Talking About Race Is Still Important in Health Care

women weights exercise happyOne of the things I’ve been most proud of about my show is the way it reaches people from all different backgrounds. I’m always amazed by the way my audience cuts across all racial groups, social groups and economic classes. That broad interest has shown me time and again that all Americans, no matter where they come from, want to improve their health and are ready to take steps toward a healthier, fitter version of themselves.

Unfortunately, we’re not all given the same opportunities to do that. Study after study has shown that race still plays an enormous role in your risk for several diseases and in your ability to access services that will keep you healthy. Medicine is still lagging behind in treating everyone equally and ensuring that all people, regardless of their race, status or resources, get what they need to get the most out of their health. It’s National Minority Health Month, and I want to take a moment to talk about why this is an important topic.

How big is the problem?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in 2013 investigating the inequalities that exist in our nation’s health. Here are few of the shocking things they found.

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., but if you’re African-American, you’re 50% more likely to die from heart disease before 75 than a similar person who’s white.
  • If you’re African-American or Hispanic, you’re far more likely than someone who’s Asian or white to have diabetes, to be overweight or obese, and to have high blood pressure.
  • If you’re African-American, your child is twice as likely to die as an infant than if you’re white.
  • Life expectancy for African-Americans lags about four years behind the life expectancy of whites.
  • Minorities were much more likely than whites to describe their health as either “fair” or “poor,” the two lowest ratings on the scale used to rate health.

These inequalities are called health disparities. They’re differences in the health of two populations that are more often based on social issues than medical issues.

Is this just about genetics?

It’s fair to ask if some of this might be written down to genetic factors that might make some of these groups more likely to gain weight or get diabetes. The problem is, studies have shown that these differences track closely with levels of poverty, income, access to insurance, unemployment and education level. Race in this country is closely tied to things like your ability to find a job, likely income, and probability of growing up and later living in poverty. Our society and the way we practice medicine is often set up to disadvantage minorities from the outset.

African-Americans, for example, are more likely to live in lower income neighborhoods in worse housing with with higher amounts of pollution than white Americans. They’re less likely to have access to supermarkets that sell fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. And they’re less likely to be able to afford a gym or have access to safe places to exercise. Some of the risk may be genes, but the health of minorities in America is being disproportionately affected by damaging health circumstances often imposed by society.

Should I care if I’m not a minority?

We’re all affected by the poor health of members of our nation and all stand to benefit from improving the situations that make minorities more likely to be in poor health. Kids who grow up in healthier environments have fewer health problems as they get older and can contribute more to their families, jobs and communities. And while you might not live in one of these areas, chances are good you and your family could do with less pollution in the air and better food at the places where you shop. Planting more trees, having less pollution, opening more parks, having more places to exercise or having more healthier foods in grocery benefit all of us.

What can I do about it?

It might seem like this problem is too big for you to have any hope of making a difference. But I want you to think of how these disparities play out in your life and how you might go about changing them even on a small scale. Maybe your grocery store doesn’t stock low salt versions of any of their canned beans or vegetables. Talk to the manager and ask if it would be possible to get these low salt versions. If you don’t feel safe exercising along in your neighborhood, start a walking group or find some other people who could do exercises in the park with you. If you feel like you don’t know enough about how to improve your health, ask a nearby community center if they’d hold an education event about making healthy food choices specifically in your area.

Finally, if you see a problem, speak up. Talk to anyone you think is affected by the problems you see and bring them to their attention. The more people you make aware of how your community is set up to harm your health, the more likely something is to change.

There’s no denying that race plays an important role in how healthy you are, your risk for certain diseases and how long you’re going to live. The good news is that we can change this. These problems aren’t written in our genes, but in the way our society treats minorities and provides healthy options for those who live in unhealthy situations. Let’s make our country a healthy place for all people who live here.