Given the focus on race right now, I decided to write about the idea of health disparities. Many people may have heard of Henrietta Lacks, but most have probably not heard of the term health disparities. I have many thoughts and emotions about what happened to George Floyd and the events of the past week, but am still processing everything, so thought I would write about what I know, which is public health.
Healthy People is a plan prepared by the federal government every ten years that “provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans”. Many of the goals and objectives relate to health equity issues. It defines health equity as the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.” It basically means that we should make sure that everyone has a chance to be as healthy as they can be.
Yet, we know from many research studies that health equity does not exist. There are a lot of differences when it comes to how healthy someone can be. These differences are called health disparities.
Healthy People 2020 defines health disparity as “a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.” Health disparities relate to a range of different groups, and there are a lot of reasons why one group of people may have worse health than another.
A recent example of health disparities relates to COVID-19, since it has impacted more people of color. You can learn about this in a recent NPR article and in an article published in JAMA, a medical journal. Other groups have also been impacted differently by COVID-19 including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Another example of health disparities relates to maternal health. Did you know that Black women are much more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth in the United States? This detailed article from NPR provides personal stories and data about this tragic public health issue.
Even before I began my career in public health I was interested in the intersection of health and society. In one class in college I wrote about the women’s health movement of the early 1970’s. And in another class, I wrote a paper about how apartheid in South Africa impacted the health care system.
Over the years I have spent a lot of time teaching my students about health disparities and have learned a great deal from my students about their personal experiences with these issues. However, despite teaching about and studying disparities, I still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to race and health given my lack of personal experience.
Due to the events of the past week, I think it is a good time for all of us to learn more about how race and health are interconnected. There are a lot of good articles to read about race and health disparities including this recent one. But I find I learn the most when I read a book about a topic to get a more in-depth perspective, so I put together a list of books about race and health and thought I would share. I have only read one of the books on the list so far; I look forward to reading more.
If you decide to purchase any of these books, consider supporting your local independent bookstore, or a black-owned bookstore such as this one near where I used to live in Philadelphia or this one in Chicago that recently donated over $30,000 worth of books to local children. Many black-owned bookstores are located in cities that have been hit hard by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests so they can use your support.
And if you have other book suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below!
Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine
Damon Tweedy, M.D.
Race and medicine
Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting
Terrie M. Williams
Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Injustice in Black America
Anthony Ryan Hatch
Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century
Race and science
Flatlines: Race, Work, and Healthcare in the New Economy
Adia Harvey Wingfield
Black health care professionals
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Medical care and research
Invisible Visits: Black Middle-Class Women in the American Healthcare System
Tina K. Sacks
Healthcare for Black women
Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care
Dayna Bowen Matthew
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present
Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth
Pregnancy and birth
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind