By Mothusi Chilume, MD and Nicole Mitton, Grants and Communications Specialist
April is National Minority Health Month, where we focus on raising public awareness about the health care disparities that continue to affect minorities. Minority Health Month is also a time to recognize the efforts to advance health equity. Health equity means that everyone deserves the chance to live a long, healthy life, and that health should not be compromised or disadvantaged because of ethnicity, gender, income, sexual orientation, neighborhood, or other social condition.
This year, the theme for National Minority Health Month is “30 Years of Advancing Health Equity | The Heckler Report: A Force for Ending Health Disparities in America.” The theme commemorates the health equity efforts mobilized by the Heckler Report (full title: Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health). The report was released in 1985 during the leadership of former HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler, and it elevated minority health to the national stage.
This milestone anniversary should remind us that, despite our collective progress towards ending health disparities, minorities continue to face significant health disparities. Here in Boston, the top two health issues for minorities are heart disease and cancer. Even though our city has the best hospitals and health research centers in the US, minorities are still at much higher risk for contracting, and dying from, these two diseases.
Top Minority Health Issue: Heart Disease
According to the American Heart Association:
- Heart disease death rates are 33% higher for African Americans than for the overall population in the U.S. (NVSS, Vol. 56, No. 10, 4/24/08).
- African Americans are nearly twice as likely to have a first stroke and much more likely to die from one than whites.
- American Indians/Alaska Natives die from heart disease much earlier than expected – 36% are under 65 compared with only 17% for the US population overall.
- High blood pressure is more prevalent in certain racial/ethnic minority groups in the US, especially African Americans.
- Non-Hispanic blacks and Mexican American women have a higher rate of obesity, a risk factor for heart disease.
Top Minority Health Issue: Cancer
Ethnicity is strongly associated with disparities in cancer care, outcomes, and screening in Boston’s neighborhoods. For example, while white females have the highest incidence rates of breast cancer, black females have the highest breast cancer mortality rate, with an average annual rate of 39.5% (Boston Public Health Commission, 2010). Meanwhile, breast cancer is consistently one of the top three causes of cancer mortality for Hispanic women (BPHC, 2011).
According to Whittier’s partner in cancer care, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, minorities are often diagnosed and treated at a later stage, leading to higher mortality rates. A historical disparity in access to regular screenings, education, diagnosis and follow-up contributes to the unequal status quo.
Taking Control of Your Health
There are many steps you can take to prevent or manage heart disease, cancer, or other major health issues such as diabetes and obesity that are linked to being a minority. In addition to following your doctor’s advice about medication or treatment, small changes in your lifestyle can make a big difference.
Below are tips to prevent heart disease, and the programs offered by Whittier Street Health Center that can help:
- Healthy diet and exercise:
- Nutrition services (one-on-one counseling, group cooking classes)
- Fitness classes (Zumba, aerobics, yoga)
- Whittier Fitness Club (opening in June)
- Avoid tobacco:
- Dana-Farber smoking cessation program (referral program)
- Limit alcohol intake:
- Substance Abuse Counseling program at the Behavioral Health Department
For cancer prevention or early diagnosis and treatment:
- Your provider can advise you about colorectal, prostate, breast cancer, and Hepatitis C screening.
- Whittier now also offers free lung screening with Dana-Farber (referral program)
- Hepatitis B
- Avoid tobacco – This is very important to your overall health!
By taking your health in your own hands, and by having the support of your health care team, you can contribute to achieving the vision of health equity.