Despite notable improvements in health care delivery and technology, racial and ethnic minorities still face significant health disparities, including higher rates of preventable chronic disease. African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, for example, are twice as likely as Caucasians to develop diabetes. American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy 4.2 years lower than other races in the U.S. and the five-year relative survival rate for all types of cancer for Native Hawaiians is lower than that for other racial and ethnic populations.
Such gaps also exist outside racial and ethnic divides. For example, women, consumers with lower levels of education, those who don't speak English as their primary language, and those with a disability are more likely to report fair or poor self-rated health, more physically unhealthy days, and more mentally unhealthy days than others.
The Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has declared April as National Minority Health Month. This annual effort helps draw attention to the critical need for improving health disparities across populations. Critical to this is the need to improve health literacy, the degree to which a consumer can obtain, understand and use basic health information and services in order to make appropriate decisions.
In the U.S., health literacy is lowest among the most vulnerable members of our society, including racial and ethnic minorities, the uninsured and the elderly. According to HHS, the success of our Country's health reform efforts will depend in large part on the capacity of individuals, families and communities to make informed decisions. Without clear, plain and accessible language, the promise of health reform cannot be realized for all.
Through decades of work with state Medicaid programs, MAXIMUS and our team at the MAXIMUS Center for Health Literacy have worked with public health and human services programs to help them reach and engage consumers. This serves minorities by empowering consumers and fostering healthier communities. We have seen that this is a cornerstone to improving health outcomes in some of our most difficult to reach populations, and through our work we have learned some key tenets for success.
- Understand that every community and group is different: To reach a target population, we must tailor outreach strategies to that population. We recommend conducting research and surveys to make sure consumers understand the messaging and the information.
- Ensure consistent, quality services for all populations: To ensure fair and equitable quality of service, treatment for minority populations must be equal. For example, regardless of the language they speak, individuals should not have a longer wait time than other populations when looking to engage with a health professional and receive information. Professionals providing services must be trained and equipped to meet the needs of their local communities promptly, accurately, thoroughly and in a manner that makes consumers feel comfortable.
- Reach citizens where they are: To include all populations, we must communicate with minority populations in the spaces they are already in and on channels they engage with regularly. These can include faith-based organizations, local athletic clubs, magazines, radio stations and social forums.
- Provide materials that are easy to read, understand and use: To ensure that all groups have equal access to information, we must be sure that the materials we provide, including notices, forms and applications, are easy to read and understand. We use plain language and adapted translations that are culturally sensitive and appropriate. We also field test written and web materials with consumers in the target audience.
In Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell's recent HuffPost blog, she noted, "Racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare are complex and there is no one silver bullet." As we recognize National Minority Health Month, it is important to focus on how we can reach all citizens to provide the information they need. Best practices, conversations and community engagement activities must continue to improve and adjust to the changing dynamics of an increasingly diverse population.
While there is much work to be done across both government and industry, I believe a fundamental component of improving the health of our nation is to increase our ability to reach and educate consumers. That means we must stop, think and focus on engagement. Helping all populations obtain and understand health information to make appropriate decisions is crucial for the future of our nation's health.