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Health-Care Disparities, Civil Rights, and Human Rights

Health-Care Disparities, Civil Rights, and Human Rights

In this issue of ONCOLOGY, Derek Raghavan outlines the reasons for and potential solutions to disparities in cancer outcomes in the United States. His discussion applies to health-care disparities in other diseases as well.

Some of the issues brought forth in this excellent review deserve reiteration. Black Americans have a shorter survival from diagnosis and higher mortality rates for almost all cancers compared to Americans of any other race or ethnicity.[1] It should not be forgotten that a large body of literature demonstrates that the poor—including blacks, whites, and persons of other races—are less likely to receive optimal medical care, be it preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic.[2] These "vulnerable populations" are also disproportionately exposed to the causes of disease. The NCI Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program has provided data showing that poor Americans have disparate health outcomes (shorter survival and higher mortality) compared to the middle class and well to do.[3]

Socioeconomic Perspective

We must not overemphasize biologic differences between the races as reasons for the disparities. Anthropologists generally agree that race is a sociopolitical categorization that is not rooted in science.[4] There are pharmacogenetic differences among different populations, when populations are defined by area of geographic origin, tribe, or even family. These pharmacogenetic differences rarely mean a particular drug or treatment ought not be administered for a specific disease. In landmark papers, Bach and colleagues[5] have catalogued disease by disease the literature to show that equal treatment yields equal outcome among the races in the treatment of cancer, and Shavers and Brown[2] detailed the data demonstrating that a large proportion of minority and poor patients receive less than optimal care when compared to nonminority patients.

The vulnerable population is large. Of 285 million Americans, 35 million (12%) are classified as poor. More than 44 million Americans have no health insurance. Many, but not all, live in poverty. Americans without health insurance include 20% of all blacks, 32% of all Hispanics, and 11% of all whites.[6] The absolute number of whites who are poor is larger than the black and Hispanic numbers combined. The same can be said for the absolute number of whites without health insurance. It might be more politically palatable and we might be able to persuade more Americans to support efforts to eliminate health disparities, if the problem is defined in socioeconomic terms instead of racial terms.

In many respects, access to America's health-care industry is segregated by socioeconomic status. Data demonstrate that once diagnosed and in the health-care system, these vulnerable populations often do not have access to or do not receive care from the specialists and the specialty institutions they need.[7] Today, many of our uninsured and poor are forced to obtain health care in institutions that cannot provide the highest quality care. Many of these "safety-net hospitals" are in financial extremis.

Medical Gluttony

The United States has the highest health-care expenditure in the world. It is indeed ironic that we live in a country where a large part of the population gets too little medical care and a large part consumes too much. America as a whole consumes substantial amounts of health-care resources that are unnecessary, often not evidence based, and sometimes even harmful. Such medical gluttony contributes to the disparities in health. We so often use new expensive medications when older cheaper ones would suffice. We indulge in unproven screening technologies when many cannot get those proven to save lives. A greater reliance on evidence-based medicine would decrease medical costs and waste.

This is not a call for socialized medicine. The solutions to disparate health care are far more complicated than simply the availability of low-cost high-quality care. Indeed, some of the best literature to show that the poor do not do as well as the wealthy comes from Scotland, a country with socialized medicine and very few nonwhite residents. The Scottish medical literature even demonstrates that poor women with breast cancer tend to present with more aggressive histologies compared to middle class and wealthier women.[8] These data strongly suggest that some of the biologic differences noted among blacks and whites in the US are likely due to extrinsic environmental influences associated with poverty and social deprivation rather than intrinsic differences. Could poverty be the reason that black women have a higher proportion of estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancers compared to whites?[9]

Important Questions

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