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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Insanity of Health Disparities

I knew from childhood I am susceptible to diabetes and have valued and studied health to give myself the best chance of avoiding that life sentence. I took for granted what turned out to be an important part of health – the certainty I had some control over my own wellbeing. I understood my choices and actions could affect how I feel and my health outcomes as I aged. Years of studying the human body, how it functions and how it functions best, led me to the conclusion that health is more than a personal issue, it is a social justice one. I took a closer look at health from this perspective. Here is what I found.

In the U.S., a person’s health is too often contingent on factors such as socioeconomic status, race, gender and education. The more money one has, and the more education, then the more likely you are to be healthy and the longer you live. Generally women live longer than men but when it comes to healthcare, women face unequal access and institutionalized sexism in the healthcare industry. The most dramatic health disparities are the racial disparities. In the U.S., African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans all have disproportionally higher rates of chronic diseases, higher mortality and poorer health outcomes than European Americans. Furthermore these minority groups have less access to healthcare and receive inferior care than European Americans.

The image shows graphs and information about life expectancy from the CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report. It suggests that the life expectancy for a black male in the U.S. is 8 years less than that of a white male and 6 years less than a Hispanic male. Life expectancy for a black female is six years less than for a white female and four years less than a Hispanic female. This is by no means a full picture because Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and people of mixed race are left out; but it does show the seriousness of health disparities in the U.S.

What does all that mean? Well it means that if you are a rich white woman with at least bachelor’s degree in the U.S. of A. you’ve won the health and lifespan lottery. If you are a poor black man who didn’t make it through high school you’re at the bottom of the health and lifespan barrel as a result of institutionalized classism and racism. Even then; despite the lifespan advantage a female naturally has due to gender, her access to healthcare is even lower than that of any male due to institutionalized sexism.

Health in the U.S. paints a messy picture and right now I am a can of paint about to be splashed all over the canvas. I am embarking on a career as a Health Coach and Educator and determined to make it more than “just a job.” I don’t know if I can impact enough lives to make a tangible difference in this situation, but I’m going to try. Five of the ten leading causes of death in the United States are preventable “lifestyle” diseases (heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes, kidney disease) and a further four can be influenced by healthy lifestyles (cancer, Alzheimer’s, influenza/pneumonia, septicemia) this means 9 out of the 10 leading causes of death can be reduced dramatically if people learn to lead healthier lives. I can help with that! (The remaining one is unintentional accidents.)

Institutionalized problems like racism, classism and sexism are big issues and the journey toward change will continue to be long and arduous. While that journey is taking place we can work from the ground up in changing our own mindset and culture when it comes to health; that way we’re not dying off from preventable diseases while we wait for the insanity of these inequalities to be fixed. I will not place the onus of oppression on the oppressed. Institutionalized racism, classism, and sexism all must be fought and done away with. Yet, I will use the one advantage I do have, my education, to wage battle on this problem from where I stand. That’s something we can all do isn’t it? We can use the gifts we have to make a difference where we are – improve our own lives, the lives of our loved ones and extend to our community. Hopefully if enough of us care enough to make a difference, the whole world can be different (better).

CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report
Chapter 24. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Cragun R., Cragun D., Konieczny P. (Open source)
Chapter 19. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Openstax College. Rice University (Open source)

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