I bet you didn't realize that if you are a D.C. resident, your gender, your race, and what metro stop you live by actually helps determine how long you live and what you might die of. That's right -- here we are in the nation's capital, the world's most powerful city, and within a 5 mile radius of the capitol dome, we have stark differences in how people live and how they die.
Let me give you some startling statistics: The District has the highest breast cancer mortality rate in the country. Wards 1 through 5 are the most affluent and predominantly white in D.C. There are a total 15 oncology offices specializing in breast cancer treatment in those five wards combined. But in Ward 8, which is not only the poorest ward but also where the prevalence of breast cancer is the highest, there is only one oncology office.
Everybody knows that obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States. An estimated 300,000 deaths per year can be attributed to obesity. If trends continue, by 2030 over 42 percent of Americans will be obese. But most troubling is that four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese -- higher than any other group. If you take the metro to Tenleytown in Ward 3, the average income is over $70,000 and is 84 percent white. The obesity rate is a little over 12 percent. Travel down the green line to Ward 8 to the Anacostia metro station. The average income is $25,000 and is 92 percent African American; 36 percent of these residents are obese. One reason for the higher rates of obesity in certain areas of D.C. is because of "food deserts" -- that is the lack of availability of healthy foods. In Ward 3, there are six full size grocery stores serving almost 74,000 residents. In Ward 8 there is only one, and it serves 70,000 people.
You might have heard about the problems with HIV in the district. Are you aware that the rate of new HIV infections for African-American men is more than three times as high as that of white men in Washington D.C.? The majority of cases are in Wards 7 and 8. You have to say to yourself, "Something is wrong with this picture."
How do I know all this? I recently worked on a documentary for Discovery Channel, titled Health: When Sex, Race, and Location Matter. In the making of this documentary, I learned a great deal about healthy disparity in D.C. -- and I like to think I'm pretty well-informed on health and medical issues. I've been at Discovery for nearly eight years, making nearly 70 documentaries. These include shows on topics such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and trauma. And they've been very good shows. But this documentary is by far the most powerful and most compelling documentary I have worked on.
It opens with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." How prescient of Dr. King to foreshadow nearly 60 years ago the disparities in health that would persist into the 21st century.
Now it's true there have been tremendous advances in medicine during that time, but the problem is that not everyone has benefitted equally. All too often, it's people of color and women that are left behind and it's in nearly every health measure. And if you aren't aware of these disparities, you're not going to do anything about it.
It is important as we approach a transformative time in health care with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) that we address these disparities in health. We first need to be aware of them. Second, we need more minority groups represented in the health care professions and finally, we need to work together as communities to find innovative solutions to combat health inequality.
Follow John Whyte, M.D., MPH on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drjohnwhyte