Discussion Racial Disparities
Racial disparities in medical care should be understood within the context of racial inequities in societal institutions. Systematic discrimination is not the aberrant behavior of a few but is often supported by institutional policies and unconscious bias based on negative stereotypes. Effectively addressing disparities in the quality of care requires improved data systems, increased regulatory vigilance, and new initiatives to appropriately train medical professionals and recruit more providers from disadvantaged minority backgrounds. Identifying and implementing effective strategies to eliminate racial inequities in health status and medical care should be made a national priority.
National data reveal that over the past 50 years, the health of both black and white persons has improved in the United States as evidenced by increases in life expectancy and declines in infant and adult mortality (National Center for Health Statistics, 1998). However, black persons continue to have higher rates of morbidity and mortality than white persons for most indicators of physical health. Hispanics and American Indians also have elevated disease and death rates for multiple conditions. Although the role of medical care as a determinant of health is somewhat limited, medical care (especially preventive care, early intervention and the appropriate management of chronic disease) can play an important role in health (Bunker, Frazier, and Mosteller, 1995). Thus, racial and ethnic differentials in the quantity and quality of care are a likely contributor to racial disparities in health status. Compared with white persons, black persons and other minorities have lower levels of access to medical care in the United States due to their higher rates of unemployment and under-representation in good-paying jobs that include health insurance as part of the benefit package (Blendon et al., 1989; Trevino et al., 1991).
More striking, and disconcerting to many is the large and growing number of studies that find racial differences in the receipt of major therapeutic procedures for a broad range of conditions even after adjustment for insurance status and severity of disease (Harris, Andrews, and Elixhauser, 1997; Wenneker and Epstein,1989). Especially surprising to many are the racial disparities in contexts where differences in economic status and insurance coverage are minimized such as the Veterans Health Administration System (Whittle et al., 1993) and the Medicare program (McBean and Gornick, 1994). Other research indicates that, although physicians’ ability to detect the severity of pain does not differ for Hispanic versus non-Hispanic white patients (Todd, Lee, and Hoffman, 1994), Hispanic patients are markedly less likely than non-Hispanic white patients to receive adequate analgesia (Todd et al., 1993; Cleeland et al., 1997). Recent studies document that these differences in the receipt of therapeutic procedures have adverse effects on the health of minority group members (Peterson et al., 1997; Hannan, van Ryn, and Burke, 1999). How do we make sense of these differences and how do we move forward with an effective policy and research agenda to eliminate these disparities?
Race, Racism, and Discrimination
Many observers are surprised and perplexed by these findings. However, we can only regard these findings as surprising if we take an ahistorical and decontextualized view of the data. In compliance with Article 1, Section 2, and Paragraph 3 of the Constitution of the United States, the very first Census in 1790 enumerated three racial groups: whites, blacks as three-fifths of a person, and only “civilized Indians”—those who paid taxes (Anderson, 1988). New racial categories were added in the late 19th Century and beyond (Chinese in 1870, Japanese in 1890, Mexican in 1930) as the need arose to track new marginalized immigrant groups (Anderson and Feinberg, 1995). Race was and is a social category that captures differential access to power and desirable resources in society (Williams, 1997). Throughout the history of the United States, non-dominant racial groups have, either by law or custom, received inferior treatment in major societal institutions. Medical care is no exception.
Thus, understanding racial disparities in medical care requires an appreciation of the ways in which racism has operated and continues to operate in society. The term “racism” refers to an organized system, rooted in an ideology of inferiority that categorizes, ranks and differentially allocates societal resources to human population groups (Bonilla-Silva, 1996). It may or may not be accompanied by prejudice at the individual level. We will illustrate the complex nature of race, racism, and discrimination in society by considering access to housing and employment.
First, Table 1 indicates that there have been important positive changes in the racial attitudes of white persons towards black persons in recent decades and broad current support for the principle of equality in housing and employment (Schuman et al., 1997). In 1963, 60 percent of white persons agreed with the statement that “White people have a right to keep Negroes out of their neighborhoods if they want to, and Negroes should respect that right.” In 1996, only 13 percent of white persons agreed with that statement, documenting a substantial positive attitudinal shift within the white population. Similarly, in 1944, a majority of white persons (55 percent) indicated that white people should have the first chance at any kind of job but, by 1972, only 3 percent of white persons endorsed that view with 97 percent indicating that black persons should have as good a chance as white persons to get any kind of job.