Finding Root Causes Of Racial/Ethnic Health Disparities

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Health Disparities

Officialsin several states are "revamping health departments to focus less onscientific data and more on the role of 'social determinants' -- things likepoverty and discrimination -- [that] some say are widening the health gap"between minorities and whites, the AP/FloridaTimes-Unionreports.

Michael Royster, who recently was named head of Virginia's Office of Minority Health and PublicHealth Policy, saidthat whereas state health officials might previously have focused on smoking asa factor behind high cancer rates among minorities, they now are examiningfactors such as the high prevalence of tobacco ads in urban communities. Hesaid, "What we're looking at is not only health care, but the roles thathealth care, health behaviors and these broader social determinants play increating health inequities."

Efforts two states have taken include:

  • Pennsylvania has created an Office of Health Equity, which is trying to determine why blacks have the highest rates of cancer in the state; and


  • Minnesota for years examined how socioeconomic factors influenced health disparities and used the data to craft legislation that aimed to reduce infant mortality disparities by half by 2010.

States'focus on reducing racial and ethnic health disparities is in part related totheir search for ways to reduce health costs, Tony Iton -- director of publichealth for Alameda County, Calif. -- said. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, states spend one-third of theirbudgets on health care each year. Iton added, "Health care spending hasexceeded the rate of growth of all sectors in most state budgets, and they'renot getting the results they would expect to get. You're seeing people beingopen to looking at this more comprehensively."

James Marks, senior vice president of the Robert WoodJohnson Foundation,noted that health departments do not have legislative power to improve housing,wages or other socioeconomic factors that might influence health disparities. Hesaid, "It is often policies that are outside (health officials')responsibility that needs to be changed. It requires mayors and governors ...they've got to be the ones to call together the private sector and the publicsector" (Walker, AP/Florida Times-Union, 12/16).

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