Most people know it is Black History Month and there is certainly a great deal to celebrate. Black people have made significant advances socioeconomically as well as politically -- especially in the last few years. However, in the field of health, there's not a lot to celebrate.
If you're black, you're going to die sooner than your white counterparts and you're going to suffer from more serious diseases. For example, cancer deaths may be decreasing in the United States as a whole but black people still bear the burden of cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society's latest data show that cancer deaths among black men are 32 percent higher than white men; black women's rate of death from cancer is 16 percent higher than white women. Worse, when black people are diagnosed with cancer, it's often at a later stage when there are fewer treatment options and the ones that we have are less effective.
If you have arthritis and you're black, guess what? You're probably not getting the best care. In recently released data, researchers found that black men were less likely to be treated with the drugs that are recommended as effective therapy. As a result, they are getting substandard care and needlessly suffering.
In the classic case of "glass is half full", look at how stroke is handled. Black people have a higher risk of having a stroke, but if they do, they more likely survive than whites do. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. This may actually be despite what medicine does, because black people actually receive clot-busting drugs (the standard treatment) less often than whites. And the focus needs to be shifted to preventing this debilitating disease.
Nowhere is the disparity greater than in the area of HIV. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first report of HIV. Within those 30 years, we have made tremendous advances in helping to reduce the incidence of HIV, as well as changing it from a death sentence to a disease you can live with. Unless of course, you're Black. Black people comprise 13 percent of the population yet they account for over half of all HIV diagnoses. The rate for HIV diagnoses for black men is eight times that of white men, and the rate for black women.
Why do we have these tremendous disparities? There are multiple reasons. These include less access to health care, lower quality hospitals and medical personnel in areas where black people live, bias in the health care system, as well as some distrust of the medical community. Many older black people still remember Tuskegee where government doctors intentionally infected black men with syphilis and did not treat them to see how the disease progressed. If you grew up during that time, I'm not surprised you don't have a good view of the medical community.
So how do we work to eliminate the differences? Certainly, I think it is important to encourage more minorities to enter the health professions, especially medicine. We don't always do a good job of being culturally sensitive. And I'm not suggesting you need to be treated by a doctor of the same race as you, but for some people it can make a difference and increase your comfort level. I also think it is important that we don't always feel it needs to be the doctor's office where we deliver information on prevention.
A study released by the University of Michigan earlier this month found that a majority of black men avoid physician visits because they find the interaction stressful. The survey participants remarked that physicians typically did not give useful information on how to make lifestyle changes. So let's consider other options. For examples, churches and even barbershops have been areas in the black community where effective health messages have been delivered, especially as it relates to areas like prostate cancer screening.
So let's indeed celebrate Black History month. But let's also be aware of the need for progress in the health of black Americans so in future years, we can celebrate not only socioeconomic and political advances, but also health advances.
Follow John Whyte, M.D., MPH on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drjohnwhyte