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Disparity in Health Care Kills

10-Year U.S. Death Toll: 886,202 Blacks
WebMD Health News

Dec. 23, 2004 -- Unequal health care killed 886,202 blacks in the U.S. from 1991 to 2000, a new estimate shows.

That's five times the number of lives saved by advances in medical science over the same time period, notes Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, of Virginia Commonwealth University. Among Woolf's co-authors is former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, PhD, now at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"By reducing the mortality rate of African-Americans to the rate of whites, five deaths could have been averted for every life saved by medical advances," Woolf and colleagues write in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Woolf and colleagues arrived at these figures using fairly crude estimates. The researchers obtained national death rates data from 1991 to 2000 from the National Center for Health Statistics to estimate the numbers of deaths averted by improved health care technology. They estimated the number of avoidable deaths blacks could have experienced by adjusting for national data on whites.

Crude estimates though they may be, the numbers paint a shocking picture:

  • White males have a 29% lower death rate than black males.
  • White females have a 24% lower death rate than black females.
  • As of 2000, the death rate for black infants and adults aged 25-54 was twice that of whites.

"Had the age-specific mortality rates of the two races been comparable during 1991 to 2000, our calculations suggested that 886,202 deaths could have been averted," Woolf and colleagues write.

In the same time frame, medical advances saved 176,633 lives.

"Our fundamental finding: Resolving the causes of higher mortality rates among African-Americans can save more lives than perfecting the technology of care," Woolf and colleagues write. "The prudence of investing billions in the development of new drugs and technologies while investing only a fraction of that amount in the correction of disparities deserves reconsideration."

The researchers note that social and economic conditions may be "a more pertinent" cause of health care disparities than race.

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