Improving health disparities and implementing programs that address the root causes of health challenges starts with understanding where those disparities exist — and taking a holistic view of health.
In my role leading the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA), I have seen deep-seated health disparities impact the community I work closely with over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted longstanding health disparities as communities of color were disproportionately impacted. It also underscored the need to address the non-clinical factors that contribute to our health and well-being, such as education, housing and food insecurity.
The American health care system largely focuses on addressing clinical factors by treating medical conditions and illnesses. The America’s Health Rankings Health Disparities Report recognizes that our health is comprised of far more than that, including the physical environment in which we live and the socioeconomic conditions that shape our daily lives.
For example, as the Health Disparities Report shows, lack of education is a major risk factor for a range of poor health outcomes. In the Hispanic community, nearly one-third of people lack a high school diploma. Families are often unfamiliar with the education system, and this pattern can repeat itself generation after generation. As a result, we end up with fewer Hispanic scientists, doctors and professionals — and too often, poorer health outcomes.
To address disparities in health outcomes and their determinants in our communities, including low high school graduation rates, we must rethink how we share information. One area where we’ve seen success is in developing culturally appropriate resources for patients that are available in their native language and at an accessible health literacy level. NHMA has developed toolkits related to vaccinations and prescription opioid abuse that empower patients to learn about steps they can take to improve their health and the resources that are available to them and their families. The data in the Health Disparities Report should serve as a catalyst for developing more educational materials that meet the needs of different populations.
Policymakers, community leaders and public health advocates will benefit from greater insight into health disparities. The data from the America’s Health Rankings Health Disparities Report can inspire them to identify where the needs are greatest, and guide decisions on how to target resources and tailor programs. By understanding and raising awareness of these challenges, we can help reduce the burden that disparities place on the health care system and achieve greater health equity for all communities.