Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity Abound, But Need to be Interpreted Locally to be Useful in Reducing Health Care Disparities

Exploring the issues of racial and ethnic data collection

In 2004, David Nerenz, PhD, Senior Staff Investigator at the Henry Ford Health System, in Detroit, Mich., managed the production of five white papers that describe how health care organizations can use data on race and ethnicity to address disparities in health care.

Key Conclusions

  • One paper was published in the journal Health Affairs; four others were published in the journal Health Services Research.

    • Many federal data sources can be useful to local health care organizations in collecting data on race and ethnicity; however, local users of the data need to understand the limitations associated with each of the federal data sets.
    • Geocoding and surname analysis—two techniques employed to impute or estimate race/ethnicity data that cannot be collected directly—are most appropriately used in combination since their respective advantages and limitations offset each other.
    • Health care organizations are more likely to undertake targeted initiatives to address racial and ethnic disparities in health care and improve quality of care if they have data from their own institution. However, data collection is often fragmented, incomplete and non-comparable within and across organizations.
    • There is a reasonable body of evidence demonstrating that health care organizations can use data on patients' or members' race and ethnicity to identify disparities in quality of care and to organize quality improvement projects that reduce or eliminate those disparities.
    • The availability of reliable and valid data on race and ethnicity is essential for monitoring and improving quality care for minority groups.

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