The Fight to Eliminate Health Disparities in the U.S.

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Health disparities are health differences that negatively affect specific population groups. These are groups who have experienced obstacles to quality health care due to discrimination or exclusion based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status or other factors. As the U.S. becomes more diverse, health care disparities are becoming increasingly problematic, affecting quality care for large numbers of people and hindering health care equity.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the University of Nevada-Reno’s Master of Social Work.

Image of patients in hospital with graphs of statistics

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<p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank"><img src="" alt="Image of patients in hospital with graphs of statistics" style="max-width:100%;" /></a></p><p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">The University of Nevada, Reno </a></p>

What the Data Says About Health Disparities

Rates of health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and HIV infection vary significantly among ethnicities.

What are Health Disparities?

Health disparities are health differences between groups of people. These may include how may people get certain diseases, disease severity, how many people die from a disease, and healthcare access. Groups of people can be based on factors like sex or gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, and geography.

Differences in Rates of Health Conditions and Habits

There are specific issues that tend to affect some groups more than others. For instance, the risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease is greater among Hispanics and African Americans than Caucasians. Also, HIV infection is a leading cause of death among African American males ages 25 to 44. Compared to Caucasians, HIV affects nearly seven times more than African Americans and three times more than Hispanics.

From 2015 to 2017, it was determined that American Indian or Alaska natives had a much higher rate of smoking among individuals 20 years and over compared to other races. From 2013 to 2016, African Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians had a significantly higher rate of obesity in the same age category compared to Asians. However, Asians had the highest rate of uncontrolled high blood pressure among individuals 20 years and over compared to other races in that same three-year time frame.

Leading Causes of Death by Ethnicity

Heart disease was the leading cause of death for Caucasians, African Americans, and American Indian or Alaska Natives, with cancer being the second leading cause in both groups. The order of these causes of death were flipped among Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander individuals.

Health Disparities Among Specific Groups

Studies have shown the challenges in health disparities include higher rates of breast cancer among African American women, poor access to health care in rural communities and higher rates of violence against Native Americans.

Breast Cancer Among African American Women

There are 9 more deaths per 100 breast cancers diagnosed among African American women compared to Caucasian women. African American women are also 40% more likely to die of breast cancer, more likely to have cancer that’s spread beyond the breast, and more likely to experience mammogram follow-up times over 60 days than Caucasian women. Additionally, fewer African American women start treatment within 30 days than Caucasian women.

Access to Health Care in Rural Communities Impacts Health Disparities

As of December 2018, 95 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. Influencing closure factors include recession recovery failure, financial struggles, and decreased demand for inpatient services. Compared to Americans living in urban areas, rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Rural Americans are also likely to have higher rates of cigarette smoking, obesity, poverty, and being uninsured. Compared to children in urban areas, children in rural areas with mental, behavioral and developmental disorders face more community and family challenges.

Mental Health Among Native American and Native Alaskan Communities

Native Americans have an increased incidence and risk factors for depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and PTSD. While the U.S. suicide rate has risen 33% since 1999, the suicide rate has jumped 139% for Native American women and 71% for Native American men during that time. The potential causes of this increase include higher poverty race, substance abuse, unemployment, and violence. The latter cause correlates to higher rates of sexual and non-sexual violence experienced by Native Americans compared to Caucasians.

Addressing Health Disparities

Various national organizations and programs have been established to create and implement strategies for reducing and eliminating health disparities among Americans.

Organizations and Programs Closing the Gap

The National Network to Eliminate Disparities in Behavioral Health (NNED) has a mission to “build a national network of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural and sexual minority communities and organizations” to help eliminate behavioral health disparities. The NNED seeks to achieve its mission by coordinating the sharing of community-based knowledge and training of cultural, indigenous and community-based best practices, leveraging resources through partnerships and collaborations, and collectively advancing political will.

Native Connections Grant Program

Native Connections Grant Program is a five-year grant program serving American Indian and Alaska Native communities, specifically Native youth. They strive to reduce suicide behavior and substance abuse among native youth and support youth as they transition to adulthood.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA)

NIAA supports and conducts research involving the impact of alcohol use on human health. They do this by conducting and supporting alcohol-related research, collaborating with other research institutes and institutions on alcohol-related issues, and disseminating research findings to health care providers and the public.


Health disparity in the U.S. is a nationwide problem that requires the involvement of many types and categories of professionals, including those involved in social work. The challenge of eliminating health disparities is an opportunity for social workers and health care professionals to meet the needs of vulnerable and underserved populations and make a difference.