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Health Disparities Increase Safety Risks

Posted By Mark Alpert, Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Updated: Friday, June 06, 2014
April is National Minority Health Month. In recognition of the month, NPSF has teamed up with the Partnership for Patients Patient and Family Engagement Network to publish blog posts by patient advocates who can speak to the patient safety implications of health disparities. This is the first in the series of three posts.

By Alicia Cole

This year, the population of the United States reached a new record of more than 317 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We are the third most populous country on the planet, behind only China (1.35 billion) and India (1.23 billion)–yet we are the most diverse.

Americans have long been proud of this diversity. We have welcomed immigrants from many different countries, races, and religions, all hoping to find within our borders freedom, opportunity, and a better way of life. It is this diversity that makes America what it is and, at the same time, creates the challenges it faces. Nowhere is this more evident than in health care.

While health indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality have improved for most Americans, minorities still experience a disproportionate burden of preventable disease, death, and disability compared to our non-minority neighbors. These are known as health disparities, a common example of which is breast cancer. Did you know that African American women are 34 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than caucasian women? Sadly, black women are more likely to be diagnosed with larger and more aggressive tumors.

Accordingly each April, we observe National Minority Health Month to raise awareness about these health disparities. This year’s campaign theme is “Prevention is Power: Taking Action for Health Equity.”

The most effective way I know to achieve this goal is through patient and family engagement: being actively involved in your own care and that of your loved ones. No matter who we are in the multicultural mosaic, one thread runs central through us all – love of family. So this month I want to encourage everyone to think about how we can engage in “prevention” to keep our families and communities healthy.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, 10.2 million Latinos, 6.8 million African Americans, nearly 2 million Asian and Pacific Islanders, and over a half million American Indians and Alaska Natives have the opportunity to get health coverage. But it’s not enough just to have the opportunity for check-ups, screenings, and vaccinations; we must now advocate for our loved ones to utilize their access to these potentially lifesaving, preventive services. We must also learn to engage with our care providers and become proactive members of our health care team. Cultures that have traditionally been taught never to question authority have to be re-educated that it is okay to ask health care providers questions regarding our condition, medications, and plan of care. Where there are language differences between the provider and patient, there are also greater risk of patient safety incidents. Therefore patients, their families, advocates, and caregivers must be more involved in their care in order to help prevent medical errors.

By the same token, health care providers must be sensitive to providing care that is culturally and linguistically appropriate to each patient. One way this has begun is through the work of the Vulnerable Patient Populations Working Group of the Partnership for Patients. Our goal is to ensure that diversity and issues involving vulnerable patient populations are included in each weekly Learning Event or Master Class produced for health care providers across the country. It is one of the ways that patient advocates are working within the health care system to foster a more multicultural, multiethnic system of care.

Starting with personal engagement in our own care, followed by advocacy on behalf of our family and loved ones, we can begin to create a community of healthy people and reduce health care disparities. Partnering with our care providers, local hospitals, and health advocacy organizations we can create a healthier minority population and a safer health care system for all Americans.

Alicia Cole is a nationally-recognized speaker and patient safety consultant. She is a survivor of multiple near-fatal hospital-acquired infections and the founder of the Alliance for Safety Awareness for Patients (ASAP) www.PatientSafetyASAP.org.

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