Category Archives: Health disparities

Apr 30 2014
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Place Matters: Eliminating Health Disparities in King County, Washington

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King County is the largest county in Washington State. Although it ranks among the 100 most affluent counties by income in the United States, it also has some of the poorest people on the country according to Ngozi Oleru, director of the King County Health Department Environmental Health Services Division and Place Matters team leader for the county. The focus area for the Place Matters team in the region is racism, with a goal to institutionalize equity and social justice within government agencies, branches and departments in the county.

Key Team Objectives:

  • Increase the capacity of King County departments to identify actions that will increase health and well-being and decrease inequities.
  • Give communities a role in the decision making within the county by enhancing existing efforts.
  • Work with local communities to partner with county staff and others to address their issues of concern

As work progressed, the initiative became law in 2010, as the Equity and Social Justice Ordinance. The law covers all of King County government and includes a set of determinants of equity that the team continues to work on to be sure they are improving the social determinants of health. Oleru said the ultimate goal is to eliminate any inequities. She noted that the Affordable Care Act provides a strong example of implementation.

“Through the work that we have been doing over the years, we had an idea of how many people did not have health coverage in King County and as it became time to begin enrolling people last year, we made a commitment as a county that we’re going to work on enrolling as many people as possible—if not everyone—who did not have health insurance coverage.”

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Apr 30 2014
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Harvard School of Public Health Special Report: The Financial Crisis as a Public Health Crisis

“Five years after the Great Recession officially came to an end, the United States has yet to fully recover from the economic devastation sparked by the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble and the ensuing turmoil that saw global financial systems teetering on the brink of collapse. But while the economic costs of the downturn have drawn the lion’s share of attention, the damage to our bodies could end up far surpassing the damage to our bank accounts.”

Those are the opening lines of a new special report from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), “Failing Economy, Failing Health: The Great Recession’s Toll on Body and Mind,” detailing how poverty and inequality resulting from the economic maelstrom pulled down so many—and what that will mean for public health in the long term.

“Health is a long-run thing, but the methods we use to analyze current data only estimate short-term effects,” says SV Subramanian, HSPH professor of population health and geography. “It may take awhile for the health impact of the Great Recession to kick in, but once it does, it could be dramatic.”

The data is strong on the links between employment and health—people who are unemployed, underemployed or laid off are less healthy and don’t live as long. 

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A 2009 study found that in the 12 months after men lost their jobs in mass layoffs, they saw their chances of dying nearly double. While over time the risk lessened it was still significant two decades later. Another study that same year found that losing a job when a business shuts its doors increases the odds of fair or poor health by 54 percent among workers with no preexisting health conditions while also increasing the risk of new health conditions by 83 percent. The stress of the situation, according to the researchers, heightens the odds of stress-related conditions such as stroke, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and psychiatric problems.

Yet another study, this one in 2010, found that about 4 in 10 Americans with heart disease or diabetes and 1 in 5 with cancer said the stress of the Great Recession made it more difficult to manage their illnesses.

What’s more complex is unearthing the pathways behind why this is the case. The HSPH article outlines some of the mechanisms by which unemployment affects health.

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Apr 30 2014
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Place Matters: Eliminating Health Disparities in Jefferson County, Alabama

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Place Matters is a national initiative of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies designed to build the capacity of local leaders around the country to identify and improve the social, economic and environmental conditions that shape health. “Addressing upstream causes of poor health, such as issues related to employment, education, poverty, and housing and environmental health risks through community action, policy development, and measuring the indicators associated with these determinants of health, are at the heart of our Place Matters work,” said the project’s program director, Autumn Saxton-Ross, PhD.

Nineteen Place Matters teams are currently working in 27 jurisdictions. This week NewPublicHealth will be highlighting six teams, chosen by Ross as representing both what needs to be fixed and what can be done.

file Jefferson County Place Matters team members take part in Food Day

Jefferson County, Alabama is the most populous county in the state. The Place Matters team, headquartered at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found that the county leads the nation in chronic diseases and conditions linked to premature death, disability, decreased productivity and high health care costs. The leading causes of death in the county are heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and the county also exceeds state and national rates for obesity.

“At the heart of the Jefferson County Place Matters Team is a commitment to empowerment and civic engagement,” said team leader Monica Baskin, PhD, as associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama/Birmingham Nutrition and Obesity Research Center. The team works to improve the social determinants of health by:

  • Informing and illuminating public policy debates via research, analysis and information dissemination
  • Building capacity of community leaders
  • Facilitating community action planning and implementation.

Baskin, who has led the team for two and half years, said it has so far focused on improving access to healthy, affordable foods; physical activity opportunities; and obesity-related issues. The team also released a health equity report about the county, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign, a touchstone moment in the U.S. civil rights movement.

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Apr 23 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: April 23

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CDC: American Indians, Alaska Natives Have 50 Percent Higher Death Rates than Non-Hispanic Whites
American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) death rates were approximately 50 percent higher than rates among non-Hispanic whites—for both men and women—from 1999 to 2009, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health. The study determined that patterns of mortality were strongly influenced by the high incidence of diabetes, smoking prevalence, problem drinking and health-harming social determinants. Among the findings:

  • Among AI/AN people, cancer is the leading cause of death followed by heart disease. Among other races, it is the opposite.
  • Death rates from lung cancer have shown little improvement in AI/AN populations and AI/AN people have the highest prevalence of tobacco use
  • Suicide rates were nearly 50 percent higher for AI/AN people
  • Death rates from motor vehicle crashes, poisoning and falls were two times higher among AI/AN people
  • Death rates were higher among AI/AN infants

“The Indian Health Service is grateful for this important research and encouraged about its potential to help guide efforts to improve health and wellness among American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Yvette Roubideaux, MD, MPH, acting IHS director, in a release from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Having more accurate data along with our understanding of the contributing social factors can lead to more aggressive public health interventions that we know can make a difference.” Read more on health disparities.

FDA Proposes New Program to Help Patients With Unmet Tech Needs
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a new program designed to help treat or diagnose people with serious conditions, but whose needs aren’t met by current technology. The proposed Expedited Access Premarket Approval Application for Unmet Medical Needs for Life Threatening or Irreversibly Debilitating Diseases or Conditions (“Expedited Access PMA” or “EAP”) program would include earlier and more interactive engagement with FDA staff, with the goal of providing patients with earlier access to safe and effective medical equipment. “The program allows manufacturers to engage early and often with the agency,” said Jeffrey Shuren, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “We expect most devices that enter this program will be in the pre-clinical trial phase.” Read more on technology.

Study Links Internet Use, Lower Depression Rates in Older Americans
Older Americans who spend more time online are also less likely to suffer from depression, according to a new study in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Using data on 3,075 retired men and women who didn’t live in nursing homes gathered by the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, researchers determined that the 30 percent who were Internet users also had a 33 percent lower probability of depression. "The largest impacts on depression were actually for those people who lived alone, so it's really suggesting that it's about connecting with others, eliminating isolation and loneliness," lead study author Shelia Cotton, according to Reuters. Read more on aging.

Apr 22 2014
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Health is a Human Right: Race and Place in America

file Emerson Elementary School class picture, ca. 1947 Courtesy of Shades of San Francisco, San Francisco Public Library

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 at the Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which was organized to support civil-rights activists during Mississippi's Freedom Summer. Those words are part of the Health is a Human Right: Race and Place in America exhibit on display at the David J. Sencer Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Museum in Atlanta. The museum, located at the CDC’s Visitor Center, mounts several exhibits each year. The timing for the Health as a Human Right exhibit coincides with National Minority Health Month, observed each April to raise awareness of health disparities in the U.S. among ethnic and racial minorities. 

file “Incidence of Syphilis Among Negroes” chart From Shadow on the Land by Surgeon General Thomas Parran, 1936

The CDC exhibit, curated by museum director Louise Shaw, is organized by social determinants of health such as housing and transportation. Photographs, like those of teeming settlements in urban cities, are a key tool to show museum goers and online viewers the health disparities in U.S. history and present day. 

Among the items in the exhibit:

  • Mexican men sprayed with DDT on their arrival for a guest worker program in the 1950s.
  • A corroded sanitation pipe and bottles of unsafe drinking water from the Community Water Center in the San Joaquin Valley, California.
  • An inventive and cheap air sampler from New Orleans that people used to catalogue pollution levels and share with law makers.
  • A Chinese version of the "Be Certain: Get Tested for Hepatitis B," campaign.
  • A March of Dimes poster depicting an African American child with polio from the late 1950s. (For a long time after the polio epidemic began, many believed African Americans could not contract the virus. As a result, precaution campaigns were rare and late among that population.) 
file “We Shall Survive, Without a Doubt” poster from The Black Panther, August 21, 1971, artwork by Emory Douglas Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition is sponsored by CDC's Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, the CDC's Office of the Associate Director for Communication and the California Endowment.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Louise Shaw in Atlanta.

NewPublicHealth: What made you decide to mount and curate this exhibit?

Louise Shaw: Three years ago the CDC Museum was approached by CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (OMHHE) to organize an exhibition to commemorate its 25th anniversary. As curator of the Museum, I was excited by the possibilities and conceived of a project that extended beyond just honoring OMHHE accomplishments. Dr. Leandris Liburd, OMHHE director, and her terrific staff, quickly jumped on board, and we all agreed to develop a historic exhibition framed by the social determinants of health. 

file “Southern Farmer’s Burden” cartoon about the Georgia State Board of Health’s efforts against malaria among African American rural workers, United States Public Health Service, 1923 Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, photo no. 90-G-22-4

NPH: What are some of the most striking issues you found in disparities between whites and minorities when it comes to social determinants of health?

Louise Shaw: Although we have made progress in many areas, we are still tackling similar issues in the 21st century that were debated 100 years ago. For instance, how we provide quality education to all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income status, was and is one of the greatest challenges facing our country. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has documented, education and the optimum health outcomes are closely linked. Ultimately, education is the pathway to eliminating health disparities. Income equality/inequality is another complex issue that is being hotly debated today. One more specific example: although pre-term birth rates have greatly declined over the past century among all groups, the disparities of those rates between whites and minorities stubbornly remain, and are yet to be eliminated. We need to ask ourselves why that is so. Collectively, we have still not resolved what it means to live in a diverse, multicultural society.  

NPH: Do you know of any outcomes that have come from the exhibit?

Louise Shaw: Internally at CDC, the exhibition has been an important touchstone for discussion and debate. I have received incredible feedback about the honesty of the exhibition, thanking me for connecting the dots visually among race, place, and health. By the time it closes on April 25th, over 30,000 people will have seen the show. I don’t think we have ever mounted an exhibition that has been visited by so many college and university students — some even virtually. A consortium of faculty members from the University of Connecticut, Emory University, and Georgia State University, have developed a formal evaluation tool. In addition, there is a local and national movement underfoot to figure out how the show can live on whether online or in another form. 

Apr 18 2014
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Faces of Public Health: Esther Chernak, Drexel University School of Public Health

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The Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication (CPHRC) at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia recently re-launched DiversityPreparedness.org, a clearinghouse of resources and an information exchange portal to facilitate communication, networking and collaboration to improve preparedness, build resilience and eliminate disparities for culturally diverse communities across all phases of an emergency. The site had originally been developed by Dennis Andrulis, now at the Texas Health Institute, and Jonathan Purtle, who co-writes a blog on public health for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

>>Bonus Links:

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, the head of CPHRC, about the re-launched site and her work in preparedness.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to lead the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.

Esther Chernak: I’m an infectious disease physician by training and pretty much have been working in public health since I finished my infectious disease fellowship in 1991 at the University of Pennsylvania. I started working in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in its city clinic system doing HIV/AIDS care, and then became the Clinical Director of HIV Clinical Programs for the health centers back in the early ’90s when the epidemic was obviously very different. I then moved to working in infectious disease epidemiology as a staff doctor in the acute communicable disease control program and was involved in infectious disease surveillance and outbreak investigations for a number of years.

Then in 1999, I took a job with the City Health Department in what was then called bioterrorism preparedness. That was the time when major cities in the country were just beginning to be funded to do bioterrorism response plans. Groups that were involved in bioterrorism preparedness recognized relatively quickly that despite the fact that we were dealing with planning for novel strains of influenza and pandemic preparedness and SARS and smallpox, we were also dealing with many, many really significant infectious disease outbreaks, and then ultimately non-infectious disease related issues that had huge impacts on public health, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Those links helped prepare me for my role at the Center.

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Apr 17 2014
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Recommended Reading: ‘Pollution is Segregated, Too’

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After decades of studies demonstrating that poor people and minorities are more likely than their white counterparts to live near health hazards such as toxic waste sites, landfills and congested highways, a new study in the journal PLOS One took a more refined look at a particular aspect in the area of “environmental injustice”: exposure to nitrogen dioxide. The pollutant—which is produced by cars, construction equipment and industrial sources—is linked to higher risk of both asthma and heart attack.

Using data from the 2000 Census, researchers determined that minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of outdoor nitrogen dioxide. The gap varies depending where in the country they live, with the upper Midwest and the Northeast seeing the greatest disparities, as well as major cities. All told the disparity accounts for an additional 7,000 deaths due to heart disease annually.

"The biggest finding is that we have this national picture of environmental injustice and how it varies by state and by city," said Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the study, according to The Washington Post. "The levels of disparity that we see here are large and likely have health implications."

There are a number of possibilities to account for the disparities. For example, according to The Post, many “urban highways...were originally routed through minority communities that were politically easier to uproot than middle-class white neighborhoods” and “highways and landfills also depress nearby property values, meaning that people who can afford to live elsewhere do, while those who can't remain within their influence.”

Read the full story from The New York Times here.

>>Bonus Link: April is National Minority Health Awareness month. Read more of NewPublicHealth’s coverage of the annual event here.

Apr 9 2014
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National Minority Health Awareness Month: Roundup of NewPublicHealth Coverage on Health Disparities

April is National Minority Health Awareness Month. A look back at NewPublicHealth’s coverage of health disparities so far this year shows significant steps being taken to both identify and rectify the public health problem. From understanding why certain demographics are at greater risk for cancer, to how income gaps and ethnicity can collide, to how racism can affect overall health, here’s a review of some of the key stories we’ve reported on health disparities in 2014.

Mistrust, Perceived Discrimination Affect Young Adult Latinos’ Satisfaction with Health Care
Mistrust of the medical community and perceived discrimination can affect how satisfied young adult Latinos are with their health care, which in turn can influence health outcomes, affect participation in health care programs under the Affordable Care Act and contribute to disparities in health care access.

Black, Latina Breast Cancer Patients More Likely to Struggle with Health Care-Related Debt
Black and Latina breast cancer patients are far more likely than their white counterparts to have medical debt as a result of treatment or to skip treatments due to costs

Faces of Public Health: Louis W. Sullivan, MD
Louis W. Sullivan, MD, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush, recently wrote a memoir, Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine, that offers a wide view of Sullivan’s experiences as a medical student in Boston, the founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and as the country’s chief health officer. NewPublicHealth recently sat down with Sullivan to discuss the book and his thoughts on the history and future of improving the nation’s health.

Study: Many Chronically Ill Adults Forced to Decide Between Medicine, Food
Chronically ill adults who, due to financial instability, lack consistent access to food are far more likely to underuse or even skip their medications completely, according to a new study in The American Journal of Medicine. Researchers analyzed data of 9,696 adults with chronic illness who participated in the National Health Interview Survey, finding that 23.4 percent reported cost-related medication underuse, while 18.8% percent reported food insecurity and 11 percent reported both. Hispanic and non-Hispanic blacks were at the highest risk.

Free to Be You and Me @ 40
Free to Be You and Me, a blockbuster hit album of the 70s and beyond, is still widely available on most music platforms. The television special, filled with skits on gender neutrality, is still a popular kids’ birthday gift, in part because many of the issues it speaks to—especially advancement opportunities and equality—are still being grappled with today.

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Apr 2 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: April 2

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Mistrust, Perceived Discrimination Affect Young Adult Latinos’ Satisfaction with Health Care
Mistrust of the medical community and perceived discrimination can affect how satisfied young adult Latinos are with their health care, which in turn can influence health outcomes, affect participation in health care programs under the Affordable Care Act and contribute to disparities in health care access, according to a new study in The Journal of Rural Health. Researchers surveyed 387 young adult Latinos, ages 18-25, finding that approximately 73 percent were moderately or very satisfied with their health care, but among those who were not, medical mistrust and perceived discrimination were found to be factors. The researchers recommend improving “cultural competency” among health care providers—from the doctors to the receptionists to the lab technicians—to help ensure Latinos are treated with respect and dignity, and also that a bilingual/bicultural workforce may be more effective at building trust. “Trust is huge; it allows patients to disclose concerns and be honest,” said study co-author S. Marie Harvey, associate dean and professor of public health at Oregon State University in a release. Read more on health disparities.

FDA Approves First Sublingual Home Treatment for Hay Fever
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first sublingual—or under the tongue—allergen extract for use in the United States. Designed to treat hay fever with or without conjunctivitis that results from exposure to certain grass pollens in people ages 10-65, the first dose is administered in a health care providers office so that the patient can be observed for any adverse reactions, but can then be taken at home. Approximately 30 million Americans and 500 million people worldwide are affected by hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, which can cause repetitive sneezing; nasal itching; runny nose; nasal congestion; and itchy and watery eyes. “While there is no cure for grass pollen allergies, they can be managed through treatment and avoiding exposure to the pollen,” said Karen Midthun, MD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, in a release. “The approval of Oralair provides an alternative to allergy shots that must be given in a health care provider’s office.” Read more on the FDA.

New Report Analyzes Link Between Metro Areas and Overall Health
People who live in compact, connected metropolitan regions are more likely to see their incomes rise, have lower household costs, have more transportation options and live longer, safer and healthier lives, according to Measuring Sprawl 2014, a new report from Smart Growth America and the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center. The report looks at 221 major U.S. metropolitan areas, ranking them based on how sprawling or compact they are as well as examining how sprawl relates to factors such as economic mobility; the cost of housing and transportation; life expectancy; obesity; chronic disease and safety. “Smart growth strategies are about making life better for everyone in a community,” said Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America. “If policymakers are looking for ways to lower costs for their constituents, improve public health and support their broader economy, they need to be thinking about how to improve their development.” Read more on community health.

Mar 26 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: March 26

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Study: ‘White Coat Effect’ on Blood Pressure is Real
The “White Coat Effect” is real, according to a new study in the British Journal of General Practice. The effect, wherein a person’s blood pressure is higher when taken by a doctor than when taken by a nurse, has long been assumed, but this is the first study to confirm it. The study analyzed the results of more than 1,000 people who had their blood pressure taken by both a physician and a nurse, finding the results of the physician-administered tests were noticeably higher. "Doctors should continue to measure blood pressure as part of the assessment of an ill patient or a routine check-up, but not where clinical decisions on blood pressure treatment depend on the outcome,” said Christopher Clark, MD, of the University of Exeter Medical School, in a release. “The difference we noted is enough to tip some patients over the threshold for treatment for high blood pressure, and unnecessary medication can lead to unwanted side-effects.” Clark also noted that researchers should also take these findings into account when performing studies on topics such as hypertension. Read more on heart health.

Black, Latina Breast Cancer Patients More Likely to Struggle with Health Care-Related Debt
Black and Latina breast cancer patients are far more likely than their white counterparts to have medical debt as a result of treatment or to skip treatments due to costs, according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. In a survey of 1,502 patients, researchers determined that 9 percent of whites, 15 percent of blacks, 17 percent of English-speaking Latinas and 10 percent of Spanish-speaking Latinas reported medical-related debt four years post diagnosis. The study said the findings should “motivate efforts to control costs and ensure communication between patients and providers regarding financial distress, particularly for vulnerable subgroups.” Read more on health disparities.

Lawsuit Challenges New York City’s Ban on E-Cigarettes
A “smoker’s rights” group called New York City Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment has filed a legal challenge to the city’s ban on electronic cigarettes—or e-cigarettes—in restaurants, parks and certain other public places. The group contends that since e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco or produce smoke, they should not be subject to New York City’s Smoke-Free Air Act. The city council expanding regulations to include e-cigarettes last year and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced its intention to propose government regulations over their use. In the lawsuit, the group wrote that "E-Cig regulation is, even in the Council's words, at best, tangentially related to the subject of smoking, in much the same way that toy water guns are at best tangentially related to authentic firearms.” However, city council spokeswoman Robin Levine said by email to Reuters that "Our legislation ensures the goals of the Smoke-Free Air Act are not undermined and protects the public against these unregulated substances.” Read more on tobacco.