Image from the Office of Minority Health
Image from the Office of Minority Health

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH), we spend more on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet millions of Americans lack the opportunity to lead a healthy life. Differences in health related to social, economic, and environmental factors are known as the health disparities that generate systemic oppression for racial, ethnic, and other underserved communities that lack opportunities to lead a healthy life.

This month marks National Minority Health Month, which is focused on raising awareness about these health disparities that continue to affect racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, residents of rural areas, and other disadvantaged groups in our nation who face systemic barriers to achieving good health and wellbeing.

“Too many Americans, because of where they live, their race, their education or their income, don’t have the opportunity to lead a healthy life and, as a result, they suffer from substantially more health problems than others,” according to the OMH.

Thus, the conditions in which people are in, from where they were born to how they grew up, play a huge role in health inequalities. However, it’s important to note that these health disparities are not specific to disadvantaged individuals and communities—they also hurt the nation as a whole, as it imposes a steep cost on the U.S. economy.

According to the OMH, the disproportionate burden of disease and poor health resulting from disparities in health insurance coverage, access to quality care, and other social, environmental, and economic factors is associated with higher health costs, increased number of missed work days due to illness, and lower household earnings. Consequentially, this drives up health spending, inhibits productivity, and puts a burden on economic growth and competitiveness at home and abroad.

For example, health care costs by patients, providers, employers and government share a sum of more than $2.5 trillion annually and continues to grow every year. Moreover, the combined costs of health inequalities and premature death in the U.S. were estimated to be $1.24 trillion between 2003 and 2006.

Thus, achieving good health requires more than just good health care or healthy behavior. It requires improving and sustaining the conditions that keep people healthy. Take the following examples:

• One in five cases of asthma are linked to mold and moisture in the home.

• In neighborhoods characterized by high levels of community violence, children may be more likely to be confined to their homes after school rather than allowed to go outside and be physically active.

• Some families, especially the poor, struggle to maintain a steady diet of nutritional food. Nearly 15 percent of American households were food insecure and unable to put food on the table at times in 2008.

Thus, the problem in minority health is not a simple case of making healthy and safe choices. Where we live, learn, and work impacts our ability to make healthy decisions. It’s difficult to eat healthy if you only live near fast-food restaurants, and it’s difficult to be physically active if your neighborhood is unsafe and offers no space for running.

To make a difference in the growing gap between health disparities, we must also address housing, education, workplaces, the environment, recreational opportunities, transportation, and other social factors that influence our health and wellbeing. With the rising cost of health care and labor force becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, it renders an even more crucial time for change.

“By 2015, racial and ethnic minorities are expected to comprise more than 41 percent of the workforce population. With even greater diversity in younger generations, the workforce is only going to continue diversifying: In 2010, Hispanics made up 23 percent of people under the age 18. By 2050, ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. will collectively become the majority.” (OMH)

In its mission to work toward helping communities and organizations from public and private sectors implement programs and policies to aid health disparities, the OMH has provided a five-step plan to address these disparities in minority health that can be locally initiated for a global impact:

1. Increase awareness about health disparities.

2. Become a leader for addressing health disparities.

3. Support healthy and safe behaviors in your community.

4. Improve access to health care.

5. Create healthy neighborhoods.

For more information about the health disparities raised in our issue for National Minority Health Month, visit minorityhealth.hhs.gov/nmhm14.

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