African-American women are more likely to die of breast and cervical cancer than white women. African-American men are more likely to die of prostate cancer than white men. Hispanic and Native American women have higher rates of cervical cancer than women of other racial and ethnic groups.
These disparities, as reported by the National Cancer Institute, are important because “disparity is the tool we use to measure health equity,” said Dr. Deanah Maxwell Stafford, a family medicine physician with Prime Care Medical Center in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Stafford provided the presentation, “Working Toward Health Equity,” hosted by the College of Community Health Sciences January 22 and part of The University of Alabama’s Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Realizing the Dream Celebration.
Stafford, an alumna of the College’s Family Medicine Residency, said health equity refers to the differences in quality of health and health care across different populations. Differences in health outcomes between Caucasians, African-Americans and other minority and ethnic groups began to be noticed in the early 1980s. At the time, disparities existed for cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, diabetes, infant mortality, cirrhosis, and homicides and accidents.
The disparities existed despite an explosion in scientific knowledge and the ability to treat diseases, said Stafford, also a physician consultant for the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Family Health Services and president of the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians.
Many of these health disparities persist today, she said. “In 2019, we have not achieved health equity. We have not achieved the reduction of health disparities. We have not achieved a level playing field.”
There are consequences, Stafford said. Health disparities affect the overall health of the nation and drive up health care costs. “As our diversity as a nation increases, so will costs to the healthcare system,” she said.
She cited an Institute of Medicine report, Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, that recommends: create diversity in health professions by increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority providers; increase health-care providers awareness of health disparities; and avoid fragmentation of health services along socio-economic lines.
“We need diversity in health professions so we can learn from each other,” Stafford said.