How to Combat Disparities in Healthcare for Minority Populations

Minority groups often experience huge disparities in quality of and access to healthcare. Studies show that there are measures that can be taken to limit or mitigate this starting with comprehensive diversity training in medical, nursing school or allied health education. This guide covers the history of disparities in healthcare, how to combat these issues, and how you can be prepared to give the best care possible as a doctor, nurse or allied health professional.

Written By

Avatar photo

Kathleen Curtis

- Bio

Kathleen Curtis is an American writer currently living in Louisville, Kentucky. She has developed content around education for more than a decade for both domestic and international clients.

Expert Contributor

Avatar photo

Susan Cheng

- Bio

Dr. Susan Cheng is the Associate Dean for Public Health Practice & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

last updated

04/21/2022

COVID-19 pandemic data reinforces previous evidence that Black, Latino, and Asian American and Pacific Islander people in the United States often encounter dramatically higher death and hospitalization rates than white populations. In fact, healthcare disparities for minority populations have a long history of impacting racial minorities, LGBTQIA+ communities, and those with disabilities, resulting in delayed care, poor outcomes, and an overall lack of confidence in a system that should provide the help these groups need.

Pinpointing the root cause of healthcare disparities is often fraught with division and highly politicized opinion. In addition, the implicit bias of many healthcare workers and policymakers often prevents a patient-first approach to healthcare. Fortunately, many of the best medical schools in the United States are taking a pragmatic and active approach to addressing inequities in healthcare. From diversity, equity, and inclusion training (DEI) to evolving admission policies and student resources, many medical schools strive to combat these disparities one student at a time.

As a prospective healthcare practitioner, choosing a school with a strong DEI component is essential in preparing you for navigating your role in the world of healthcare while giving fair and equal care to every patient. To help you in this effort, this guide explores the roots of healthcare disparities, identifies concrete ways to combat them, and highlights schools that boast a strong dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

History of Disparities in Healthcare

The history of disparities in healthcare reveals the challenges faced by various racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups despite many advances over the last 50-60 years. Wayne J. Riley, MD, MPH, MBA, MACP notes many these inequities in depth in his paper, Health Disparities: Gaps in Access, Quality and Affordability of Medical Care, citing higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, and greater disease risk among other health-related factors as being some of the significant inequities faced by minority populations.

The following section explores how racial minority groups, the economically disadvantaged, women, disabled Americans, and LGBTQIA+ individuals have encountered a long history of healthcare disparities that continue to be contemporary issues. Learning this history and how the issues have evolved to impact healthcare today provides an understanding of current access to competent and compassionate health services.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)

Racial minority groups in the United States offer a consistently clear example of historical inequities within various healthcare systems, and the roots of race-based healthcare disparities can be linked to broader issues like slavery and colonialism. Current data, such as that showing Black Americans have higher mortality rates stemming from heart disease, breast cancer, and strokes, indicates that these inequities still exist.

While the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act took dramatic steps to narrow racial gaps in healthcare access, the Brookings Institute notes that Latinos are almost three times more likely than white Americans to be uninsured. From inadequate immigration policies to a history of reliance on undocumented workers, this group often lacks easy access to essential healthcare services.

Socioeconomic Status

Often linked to higher mortality rates and various health problems, socioeconomic status is a significant indicator of health disparities. Socioeconomic status is impacted by a broad range of elements, including economic stability, education, and community/social factors. Whether a person lives in a low-income neighborhood or works a low-paying, high-stress job, these factors can lead to widespread health issues like diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and low birth weight.

Individuals with access to higher education, better wages, and growing social capital typically, according to the New York Times, have an increased life expectancy. These Americans normally can access quality healthcare and mental health services out of reach for the economically disadvantaged. Race is also entangled in socioeconomic discussions with Kaiser Family Foundation data showing that about 20% of both Black and Hispanic communities report having fair or poor health statuses.

Disability Status

While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was a landmark piece of legislation and went a long way in protecting the rights of disabled citizens, disability status often still leads to healthcare disparities. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, insurers could refuse coverage for individuals with chronic health conditions and disabilities.

Americans with disabilities often go unrecognized in discussions about avoidable health inequities, but data from the American Journal Of Public Health reveals that adults with disabilities are four times more likely to report their health as fair or poor. Determining disparities for those with disabilities is challenging because differentiating between underlying health issues and avoidable factors is complex.

LGBTQIA+

Addressing LGBTQIA+ health disparities can reduce healthcare costs, increase longevity, and enhance mental and physical health. While these differences in care are just beginning to be addressed for this long-ignored and stigmatized population, the fervor of the vitriolic attacks on transgender individuals reveals the significant political, social, and cultural barriers that exist.

From the AIDS crisis in the latter portion of the 20th century to today’s onslaught of anti-trans legislation, the healthcare disparities for LGBTQIA+ populations are real. Even in the face of numerous studies revealing that gender-affirming care can save lives, politicians across the country brandish this wedge issue as a political weapon.

Check out our guide to creating LGBTQIA+ friendly communities in healthcare and education.

Gender

Gender-based healthcare disparities data reveal that states offering more preventative care can narrow the healthcare gender gap. Additionally, the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that the racial and ethnic healthcare disparities in women’s healthcare show that Black and Latina women are more likely to report their health as fair or poor. Also significant is that women have, according to America’s Health Rankings from the United Health Foundation, higher rates of frequent mental distress, depression, and physical inactivity.

Additionally, the seemingly perpetual war waged on women’s reproductive rights may soon have real consequences. In 2022, the United States Supreme Court is slated to rule on a Mississippi-based case that may dramatically reduce women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

How to Combat Disparities in Healthcare

In recent years, medical school curricula have evolved to take an active role in addressing disparities in healthcare. Student education, comprehensive diversity training, and community education are believed to be the way forward in fighting inequalities in healthcare. Similarly, diversity training initiatives can lead to a cultural competency that enhances care and even saves lives.

However, just as healthcare disparities vary between groups, combatting inequities also involves a community-based approach. Here are some ways medical schools, medical professionals, and various other groups are preparing students for a career in medicine by injecting equity into various healthcare systems.

Student Education

A growing number of medical schools are now integrating diversity training into their curriculums and focusing on the many, long-ignored healthcare inequities. Providing ways for students to understand others’ experiences along with evolving curricula are just some of the approaches medical schools are using to address healthcare disparities.

  • Understanding Various Experiences The University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine has implemented a poverty simulation where students are placed in family units and live like a low-income family for a while to better understand the disparities.
  • Evolving Curricula The academic status quo at medical schools has played a role in perpetuating healthcare disparities. Instructors, researchers, and medical students are making strides in how underserved populations are viewed in healthcare settings by crafting curricula that address health disparities. Changing how and what medical students are taught, according to Acad Med, can impact where they decide to practice.

Comprehensive Diversity Training for Healthcare Providers

Effective diversity training for healthcare providers not only enhances the quality of unbiased, compassionate care but can also save lives, according to David Skorton, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Many schools and state healthcare systems are responding to this in a variety of ways.

  • Racial Bias Training In response to how unconscious racial bias can significantly impact healthcare outcomes, schools like Johns Hopkins University are employing online training in sexual orientation and gender identity, cultural sensitivity, and unconscious bias.
  • Cultural Competency Training While cultural competency training is often dismissed as inherently political, strong evidence provided by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps suggests it adds to practitioner skills and benefits patients from various ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. This type of training has expanded in recent years with states like Washington and New Mexico requiring diversity training for their healthcare professionals.

Community Outreach and Education

From a lack of trust in healthcare to a lack of education in various underserved communities, community outreach, and education can go a long way in disrupting disparities in healthcare. Regardless of position or organization, addressing the unique needs of varying communities can also mitigate inequities in healthcare. Additionally, the Health Resources & Services Administration makes clear the value of effective communication in healthcare and highlights the need for targeted cultural and linguistic competence.

As various communities have their own unique set of healthcare issues, taking a local approach with healthcare initiatives can expand access to healthcare and combat disparities. For example, community-targeted initiatives and educational programs see community health workers using their expertise in attempting to reduce health disparities like substance abuse, heart disease, and physical inactivity.

Schools That Actively Integrate Diversity Training Into Their Curriculum

While actively integrating diversity training is becoming more common, some schools prioritize diversity and inclusion more than others. Forward-looking medical schools not only offer diversity training but are also home to a network of student resources, policies, and philosophies designed to expand equity while simultaneously mitigating disparities in healthcare.

Multiple schools that actively expand diversity and equity on campus are spotlighted below. They’re setting the standard for integrating DEI training into healthcare curriculums and for creating campus-wide initiatives to actively acknowledge and fight the disparities in healthcare.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University Nursing

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, one of the best medical schools in the United States, actively addresses healthcare disparities through its Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Health Equity. With the goal of health equity for underserved populations, Johns Hopkins takes a top-down, institutional approach by recruiting, promoting, and engaging underrepresented individuals at all levels, from administrators to practitioners, of healthcare.

In addition to integrating DEI work into professional and academic training, this elite institution also hosts a health equity team that conducts research and data analysis as well as implements its findings. In 2020, the school also launched an equity advisory committee to consult with leaders from groups like the Center for Health Equity, the Center for Transgender Health, and the Urban Health Institute.

Oregon Health and Science University

Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) is invested in expanding healthcare diversity while combating disparities in healthcare. Since 2010, this institution has taken a multifaceted approach to diversity through its diversity council, academic pipeline program, and a set of diversity standards and resources. OHSU also facilitates community engagement events and hosts regular diversity training classes.

In addition to their dedication to expanding diversity into every element of the school, OHSU offers a summer equity internship and an OHSU inclusive language guide. To enhance equity for students, OHSU also provides resources like a food resource center and a Health Justice Co-op and is home to 11 recognized student interest groups related to diversity.

University of California-San Francisco

The University of California-San Francisco’s school of medicine is dedicated to building one of the country’s most inclusive and equitable medical schools. Alongside its long-established pipeline program, the school’s 2015 diversity initiative established the inherent value of diversity and inclusion in learning, professional practice, and research.

UCSF’s Office of Diversity and Outreach provides a substantial list of resources and offers free training in unconscious bias and anti-racism along with a diversity and inclusion certificate program. The school also hosts regular events on topics like allyship in global health, microaggressions, and AAPI workers in healthcare.

University of South Florida

South Florida

Based in Tampa, the University of South Florida’s Office of Graduate Medical Education takes a hands-on approach to enhancing equity and diversity in its programs. Relying on the notion that a diverse student population enriches the student experience, USF has enlarged its applicant pool for qualified under-represented students and takes a holistic approach to the admission process.

USF provides students with various program resources to bolster anti-racist initiatives and allyship. The medical school is also home to diversity organizations like The Inter-Faith Medical Exchange, Latin Medical Student Association, and Project World Health. USF also hosts a series of Diversity Learning Lunch seminars to enhance cultural consciousness and understanding. In addition, the school regularly facilitates educational experiences to give first-hand experience of the challenges poverty creates for medical patients.

Duke University

Duke_University

In addition to partnering to produce a film series focusing on Black physicians, Duke University is consistently recognized for its dedication to diversity and inclusion. Duke’s medical school partners with various campus groups to create a culture of inclusion that includes the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, Office for Institutional Equity, Duke Med for Social Justice, and their Office for Health Equity. The school’s Moments to Movement program takes a multifaceted approach to advancing equity and includes EDI training.

In addition to a dedication to equity and inclusion, Duke also provides students with a sizeable list of student wellness resources and support services. Additionally, the school’s multicultural resource center facilitates funding and scholarship opportunities along with student organizations like the Latino Medical Student Association and DukeMed Pride.

Interview With a DEI Expert

Dr. Susan Cheng is the Associate Dean for Public Health Practice & Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

1) How can practitioners at every level address healthcare disparity for minority patients?

Practitioners need to establish a sound knowledge base of the social determinants of health and the political/systemic determinants of health that impact how risk factors affect populations differentially. Both risk factors and prognoses are impacted by external factors to the individual that are driven by systemic, historic, and structural factors beyond individual risk factors. Exploring and achieving competence in how to identify, address, and dismantle these external determinants of health are vital to addressing the root causes of health disparities across populations and individuals.

2) What are some common issues in this arena that the wider population may not consider?

When working with specific communities, sometimes there are historical roots of mistrust or previous unethical behavior that create a challenging dynamic when seeking buy-in and engagement from within the population. Understanding and addressing those historical interactions will help guide how to build trust and agency among community members to increase the efficacy of new interventions and initiatives. Engaging community members early in the planning and development of new initiatives is also vital to success.

3) Where can healthcare students and practitioners find resources to help educate themselves?

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities has a resource page where students and practitioners can start the process of educating themselves on health disparities. The American Public Health Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have Health Equity resources available online. Health Equity Tracker is a newer project that launched as a response to the health disparities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to aggregate and track data to help visualize health disparities across multiple conditions and track potential progress in mitigating those differences.

4) What advice would you give to healthcare students looking to address these issues intheir future practice?

Lead with empathy. Every individual is different, and every situation is different. Prognoses and statistics tend to drift towards the average experience or set of symptoms, but individual data points can differ significantly across all possible ranges. Treat each patient like an individual, guided by science, but not dictated by “normal” predicted outcomes or timelines. Seek out trauma-informed care training and resources, and actively listen to each patient. A deeper intake interview can sometimes prevent missed data or symptoms later. Research shows that respect and empathy from care providers are linked to better overall care and outcomes.