Research is Key to Tackling Health Disparities

Izzy Okparanta

New leadership in the White House means new leadership in key government positions such as those at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which houses the Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers (TCC) for Health Disparities Research Program. TCC supports academic, community, and government coalitions that research social determinants and analyze various health- or non-health-related policies that affect health disparities.

Social determinants, such as education, income, and community conditions — which are often tied to race and ethnicity — play a significant role in why certain communities experience higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and breast cancer fatality.

“Income and education are the most powerful predictors of health status,” said Dr. Hortensia Amaro, Associate Vice Provost for Community Research Initiatives and Dean's Professor of Social Work and Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, during Research!America’s 2016 National Health Research Forum. “So we cannot afford to just focus on what happens in the intersection with the medical system.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals with lower levels of education tend to make less money than those with higher levels. “Low-income individuals — who are disproportionately minorities — are limited in their ability to afford housing in communities with conditions that foster health such as availability of healthy and affordable food options, neighborhood safety, high-quality schools, and parks and green space where families can exercise. Low income and minority neighborhoods are also more likely to have high concentrations of environmental hazards such as toxic chemicals,” Amaro said.

For those living in poverty, housing location can have a significant negative impact on health. “Maybe the [healthcare] provider says eat a healthy diet, get connected to a nutritionist, but the person lives in an area with a food desert [and] can’t afford to get the healthy food,” she added.

Disease prevention is further blocked for those in poverty due to lack of access to adequate healthcare and potentially lifesaving screenings.

In 2013, among women 40 and up, 70% of those with health insurance had a mammogram in the past two years compared to just 38% of those without it, according to Susan G. Komen. The lack of preventive care among uninsured low-income people can lead to late-stage diagnoses, which can in turn lead to lower survival rates, according to the CDC.

To help eliminate health disparities, TCC’s program will need continued support from the new Administration and Congress. Such support aligns with the opinions of a majority of Americans (81%) who say it is important to conduct research to eliminate health disparities, according to a Research!America survey.

“I think the conversation has to change to understanding that to make the health of individuals in this country better, we have to improve conditions in communities in order to provide all Americans with the opportunities to be healthy,” Dr. Amaro said. “And that includes access to care but it also includes opportunities for employment, for housing that isn't dilapidated, and for access to transportation that gets you to the food store that has healthy foods, or to employment. To accomplish this, we must involve communities along with other stakeholders such as elected officials, the business sector, and the health care and public health systems in jointly developing solutions.” 

Izzy Okparanta is the Senior Communications Specialist at Research!America.

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The capabilities are enormous, a little bit of research can pay off quite a bit in the long run.
Paul D’ Addario, retinitis pigmentosa patient