Racial disparities are evident in all aspects of life, but while the average individual is well aware of the academic and economic struggles African Americans, Latin Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans face, most people fail to recognize how these factors play into physical and mental health for these demographics — and how, in return, poor health hampers minorities’ ability to succeed in academia and the workforce.
Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to disparities in the health care system as among the most “shocking and inhumane” forms of inequality, and sadly, things have not improved much since he passed away. This is most evident in life expectancy; in 2013, whites were expected to live 79.1 years, compared to just 75.5 years for African Americans. While this represents a 5.7 percent gain in life expectancy since 1999, it’s still a concerning disparity. Latino and Asian populations actually enjoyed life expectancies roughly in line with whites, but this was largely attributed to strong community connections (which prove especially beneficial in old age) and not better health care.
The quality of care minorities receive is sub par in all areas of the health care system. While differences are especially stark in the emergency room, both overt and subtle biases in everyday clinics can actually prove more devastating in the long run. Many individuals are unable to even get in the door of a clinic to receive preventative care; huge increases in health care costs have made it difficult for low and even middle-income families to afford simple physician visits. Medicaid helps, but many needy individuals do not qualify.
Among those who can actually afford to visit the doctor, discrimination is a huge problem. Most doctors do not display overt signs of racism, but they are less likely to engage fully with minority patients. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that patient-centered verbal communication was 33 percent less common in interactions involving African American patients. Furthermore, physicians were 23 percent more vocally dominant during these appointments.
Emergency Room Outcomes
The poor care minority patients receive at the preventative level eventually leads to severe health problems. African Americans are 1.7 times as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as whites. This is also a significant concern among Hispanic men, 13 percent of whom have diabetes and another 7 percent of whom do not realize that they have the condition. Likewise, diabetes diagnosis is twice as likely among Native Americans as it is for Caucasians. Heart disease disparities between minorities and whites are also significant; prior to age 50, African Americans are 20 times more likely to suffer heart failure.
Minorities are more likely to experience life-threatening conditions that lead to hospital visits — and once they arrive, they receive sub par care. The end result can be devastating, with minorities more likely to die in the hospital or shortly after leaving the hospital. In a moving column published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ron Wyatt explains that the current racist health care system “kills people.” In this opinion piece, he draws on a terrible experience in an award-winning Chicago hospital, in which white health care professionals consistently displayed a lack of regard for his health and well-being, showing not only poor bedside manner, but also outright negligence. His experience was backed up by a 2006 study of coronary bypass candidates, which found that physicians were less likely to recommend African Americans for this necessary surgery.
Perhaps the most alarming and most deadly trend in emergency rooms is the time minority patients are forced to wait for care. Although this may be, to an extent, a socioeconomic problem (as poor white patients also experience long wait times), discrimination is thought to play a role as well. Research from Penn Medicine indicates that African American patients visiting the emergency room wait an hour longer than patients of other races to be transferred to inpatient beds.
Mental health is a huge problem among minority populations, but unfortunately, the few who actually receive targeted mental health care rarely enjoy the quality of care they deserve. Those who visit therapists find that their relayed experiences with racism are doubted or cast off as unimportant. Some psychologists make harmful remarks about depression being unrelated to race, while others have gone so far as to theorize about African Americans’ supposed laziness.
Although mental health is a huge concern among all minority groups, it is arguably the greatest threat in Native American communities, which have long been plagued by harmful stereotypes regarding alcoholism and drug use. Unfortunately, alcoholism is a problem among Native Americans, who despite being less likely to experience the devastation of cancer or heart disease, are five times as likely as whites to die from alcohol-related causes. Many suffering Native Americans avoid therapy for fear of dealing with patronizing counselors who attempt to ‘nativize’ their practices.
Issues in mental health treatment are by no means limited to African American, Native American, and Hispanic American populations. Asian Americans have also suffered greatly in this regard. While their life expectancy actually exceeds that of whites, Asian Americans face numerous health care challenges, many of which are not taken seriously due to the “model minority” stereotype. Misconceptions about all Asian Americans thriving academically and professionally may cause feelings of isolation, particularly for those who do not believe they live up to model minority expectations. Stigma may prevent individuals from reaching out, and when they do, they often struggle to obtain the diagnoses and treatment they so desperately need.
From the emergency room to the counselor’s office, racism hampers health outcomes for minority patients, who, on average, wait longer than white patients to receive inferior treatment. Awareness is the first step to solving this problem, but medical professionals must also be trained to deliver the same standard of care to all patients, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status.