Closing the Gap on Minority Health Disparities

Racial and ethnic minorities continue to lag behind in many health outcome measures and patients are less likely to get preventative care, translating into more instances of heart disease, stroke and cancer. 

During a recent Capitol Hill briefing, several groups, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Association of Black Cardiologists, gathered to discuss ways to create awareness and help eliminate health disparities among minorities.

“There is a strong moral argument to be made that these health gaps ought to be unacceptable,” said Brian D. Smedley, PhD, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. There’s an economic argument to this -- if we’re going to be competitive internationally we need to address our higher burden of disease inequality, Smedley said. More than 30 percent of our excess health care costs are because of this higher burden and when disease is preventable, we need to make sure our patients are not getting sick in the first place, he said.

Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, deputy director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave the keynote address, which focused on what was identified as three contributors to continued health disparities:

  • Gaps in minority health research

  • Minority participation in clinical trials

  • Lack of cultural competence and investments in the health care workforce, including clinical investigators

He highlighted the NIH’s Health Disparities Strategic Plan which looks to expand understanding and develop new approaches for detection and diagnosis among minority patients. He noted in order to close the gap, the best way to look at existing disparities is to study and include all people, otherwise the full range of the disease isn’t known.  He said efforts to increase clinical trial participation in minorities involves a conversation with all races, not just an attempt to change one groups’ attitude. Including minorities as principal investigators in clinical trials is also key. Currently, only 1.1 percent of all principal investigators at NIH are African American, he said.

“If we are to continue to maintain a leadership role in biomedical research, we need to include the best and the brightest,” he said. “Most doing research now look like me – old white men. We need greater diversity in the research workforce.” He said achieving these goals is a team effort and professional organizations such as the ACC can help the NIH greatly.

Boisey O. Barnes, MD, FACC, founding member and trustee of the Association of Black Cardiologists, said the best way to reach minority patients is to go out into the community and make them feel comfortable and show them the benefits of clinical trials.  He likened clinical trials to flying in first class – you’ll get to your destination just like if you were flying in coach, but it’s better because the trials offer free medications and more targeted and frequent monitoring.  He also pointed to diet and “food deserts” where no grocery stores exist and neighborhoods only have fast food restaurants.

“I’ve dealt with health disparities for over 30 years as the only board certified cardiologist serving the Anacostia area of Washington, DC,” he said. “We have what I call the deadly quartet in the African American population – hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and tobacco – and I see it every day. We need to redirect our forces to where the needs are and focus and push for prevention.”

For more information about credo the ACC’s Coalition to Reduce Disparities in Cardiovascular Outcomes visit .
For more information about the Association of Black Cardiologists visit .


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