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Racial Disparities Narrow in Some Areas, Persist in Others



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The gap between whites and minorities in the U.S. is starting to narrow in some key health areas, such as infant deaths and uninsured rates. But for blacks and Hispanics, troubling disparities persist in childhood obesity and high blood pressure, new federal data show.

The new annual report on the nation’s health, released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, featured racial and ethnic disparities. It showed that Hispanics are living longer than blacks and whites, and the rate of infant deaths has dropped most for black and Puerto Rican women. There are also much fewer uninsured minorities, and smoking rates have steadily fallen since 1999.

But some gaps persist.

High blood pressure remains much more common among black Americans, and Hispanic children and teens are still more likely to be obese than their black, white and Asian counterparts.

That information can help doctors know what “they should be on the lookout for, and do outreach” focused on prevention, said Julia S. Holmes, Ph.D., lead author of the annual health reports.

Hispanics and blacks are the largest minority populations in the country. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2014, Hispanics — who can be of any race — make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks represent roughly 12 percent of the population.

The lack of affordable, healthy food in certain neighborhoods plays a role in racial disparities, said Marshall Chin, M.D., a primary care doctor who treats mostly working-class black men and women on Chicago’s South Side.

Chin, who has researched health disparities in the U.S., hopes the new report motivates advocacy groups, legislators and Americans overall to pay attention to these health inequities. He said federal and state lawmakers have lacked the political will to make health disparities a priority.

“Until we say as a society that this is an important enough priority that we need to do whatever it takes to reduce these disparities, we’re not going to make enough progress,” said Chin.

Even so, the 400-page report on health data is published specifically for that purpose, said Holmes, chief of the Analytics Studies Branch at the National Center for Health Statistics. She calls it a “reference book” that helps researchers, policymakers and doctors keep up with trends. State governments can also use it to assess the impact of healthcare initiatives.

The CDC report also serves as a reminder to doctors that health disparities exist among their own patients, said Chin, a professor of healthcare ethics and associate chief and director of research at the University of Chicago’s Section of General Internal Medicine.

The focus on health disparities comes on the heels of the 30th anniversary of what is commonly called the “Heckler Report,” the first federal acknowledgement that eliminating health disparities should be a national priority. Margaret Heckler, the then-Health and Human Services Secretary, commissioned The Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, released in August of 1985.

For now, Chin urges patients to speak up. Those facing health challenges or barriers to care should tell their doctors.

“Really it’s a partnership,” Chin said. “That’s going to lead to the best care, when you work together as a team.”

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