Health disparities are inequalities in the health care industry. These unjust differences are preventable and disproportionately affect people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, women, people with low socioeconomic status and those living in underserved rural communities.
It’s necessary to be aware of health disparities across the United States so everyone can make the differences required to close the gaps in care. Here are five things you should know.
1. The Inequities Originated Centuries Ago
Today’s health disparities are lingering effects of centuries of ignorance and unjust practices.
After the Civil War, newly-emancipated Black citizens struggled to find health care. Their time in slavery did a number on their bodies and the financial struggles of many led to poor health for former slaves years after gaining freedom.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the lack of health care eventually drove formerly enslaved people and their descendants from rural areas into cities hoping for better livelihoods. However,
Black individuals and other people of color throughout the states still receive unequal care nationwide.
Another group of people significantly affected by health disparities are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Hateful views on human sexuality led to harmful stereotypes and the refusal of care.
A prime example of this was the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Decades later, around 15% of the community admitted to delaying seeking care due to their fear of discrimination. Many people report denial of routine screenings, mental health services, fertility treatments and even examinations for their children. Transgender people are some of the most affected. The data shows 33% of those who did seek care said they had to teach their doctors about their gender and sexual identities to receive proper care.
The ignorance of many doctors regarding women’s pain is astonishing to this day, but the reasoning goes back to the days of intense misogyny. While women fought to have their voices heard, the men conducting medical research did so on other men, ignoring the biological differences between the sexes and leading to harmful stereotypes and misinformation. For years, doctors didn’t know that women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men.
Some research suggests women are more likely to express pain, which led to the misconception that they are “dramatic.” However, this belief not only causes unjust suffering, it still leads to the misdiagnosis of heart attacks, strokes, reproductive illnesses, chronic conditions and serious injuries.
Many providers gravitate toward city and suburban medical centers as they’re often familiar environments. However, that can lead to people living in rural areas needing to travel for hours for quality health care.
When they do travel, it can be hard to address specific issues. Recent research found those living in rural communities face a significant stigma for seeking care — especially mental health care. There is also lingering skepticism of doctors in many of these areas and fear that their lack of medical knowledge will embarrass patients at an appointment.
Lower and Middle Class
The United States health care system caters to the wealthy. Those with little or no insurance often have large debts to receive their desperately needed treatments. The most affordable insurance plans lack dental, eye and mental health care, which should not be luxury services.
With programs like Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, many below the poverty line can receive some insurance. However, rising costs impact upper-lower-class and middle-class families who make enough income to cover those services but struggle to pay hundreds of dollars monthly for insurance.
2. Education Is Key
With knowledge comes power. Educating leaders and the general public about health disparities and their causes is the first step in creating effective change. Thankfully, many organizations are working to do just that:
- The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities reviews minority health struggles and supports research into how conditions affect different communities.
- LGBT HealthLink is working to educate the country on best health practices for the LGBTQ+ community, and works to reduce tobacco use and cancer within it.
- The National Alliance for Hispanic Health focuses on improving health in Hispanic communities across the U.S. through education and advocacy.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Program establishes policies, promotes legislation, and enforces laws relating to discrimination and unfair treatment of individuals based on their race, nationality, gender identity, sexuality and income level.
- The Allies for Reaching Community Health Equity focuses on educating communities and health providers about health disparities, and provides knowledge bases and other resources to close the gaps in care.
These are just some groups working to change health care through education and legislation. Still, you don’t have to be a member to learn about health disparities in your community and educate friends, family and local leaders about the need for change.
3. You Can Help
There are many ways to help end health disparities in America. Educating yourself about the problems is the first step. Then, fight back. You can join the war against health disparities by supporting local and national organizations lobbying for better care.
Listen to what the people most affected have to say and call your legislators about the issues. Advocate for funds to go to rural and low-income areas for better facilities, and bring or start groups that create safe spaces for those most affected to receive care and air their grievances about the system. Financial contributions can help the cause, as can educating your friends and neighbors about health disparities, and the need to close the equity gap they create.
Combating Health Disparities Across The US
It’s hard to learn about health disparities in the country, but hope is on the horizon. Legislation introduced in Congress aims to take action on resolving health disparities in all the mentioned communities. Leaders and allies across the U.S. work daily to end the hate and stigma that result in poor health care. By adding your voice, you can promote change that will bring proper health care to everyone.