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Seeking Equality in Health Care

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WebMD Health News

April 28, 2000 -- Seven years ago, Karen Jackson faced the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis. She emerged from treatment with a good prognosis, but not all black women have fared so well.

Despite major advances in treatment, death rates for black women with breast cancer have not improved -- although fewer white women are dying of the disease, says the National Cancer Institute. One estimate shows that 22% more black women die of the disease.

For Jackson, of Houston, her experience was a call to action. She wanted to change the fate of other African-American women. She founded the Sisters Network Inc., a nationwide, nonprofit organization of breast cancer survivors dedicated to "educating black women about the disease and releasing the fear that this is a death sentence," she tells WebMD.

Inequity in health care is a serious issue for all racial and ethnic minorities. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health show that they have significantly higher rates of death and disability than the white majority:

  • African-American infants are two-and-one-half times more likely to die than white infants are.
  • American Indian infants are one-and-one-half times more like to die than white infants.
  • Vietnamese-American women have cervical cancer at nearly five times the rate of white women.
  • African-Americans have more deaths from heart disease than whites and account for more new cases of AIDS.
  • Hispanics, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are nearly twice as likely as whites to have diabetes.
  • African-American men under age 65 have nearly twice the rate of prostate cancer as whites.

To understand why, and to eliminate racial inequalities in health care, two public health giants have formed a historic partnership. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) recently announced their intent to develop a "blueprint" for a nationwide effort to address these issues.

"We want a clear goal for the nation," Richard Levinson, MD, DPA, associate executive director of APHA, tells WebMD. "We have very significant disparities in the level of health and well-being between the Caucasian majority and ethnic minorities. ... What the government is saying, what the world is saying, is that this is unacceptable."

A soon-to-be-named steering committee -- composed of 25 people from business, government, labor, education, churches, and various ethnic groups -- will have until November to complete the blueprint, says Levinson. A larger coalition of some 300 people from similar national, regional, and local organizations will then come up with a detailed plan. This plan is to be completed by November 2001.

The effort dovetails nicely with the Healthy People 2010 initiative launched by David Satcher, MD, PhD, surgeon general and assistant secretary for health at HHS. "Our goal is to increase length and quality of life for all people and to eliminate racial disparities by 2010. For the first time, the standards for health and well-being are identical for all races ... including length of life, deaths and illness from major chronic diseases," Levinson tells WebMD.

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