Addressing disparities in healthcare during COVID-19
The COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) has disrupted communities across the country. But for those in underserved populations, the pandemic poses even greater challenges, revealing healthcare inequities and issues that affect certain minority groups disproportionately.
Read on to uncover the impacts of COVID-19 on these vulnerable populations.
Healthcare disparities for racial and ethnic minority groups
Unfortunately, existing healthcare disparities can be exacerbated by PHEs such as the COVID-19 crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes racial and ethnic minorities in its list of individuals who need to take extra precautions amid the pandemic.
From March through June 13, 2020, some racial and ethnic minority populations experienced higher rates of hospitalization from COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white individuals, according to data from the CDC. For example, non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native individuals were hospitalized at a rate about five times greater than non-Hispanic white individuals.
Living in densely populated areas: Congested cities or overcrowded living conditions impose challenges to social distancing. Large households that include extended families may find increased difficulty keeping sick individuals separate from elderly family members.
Working in essential industries: Essential workers often have roles that require them to interact closely with the public or other individuals even during a healthcare crisis.
Lack of health insurance or sick leave: Hispanic individuals are almost three times more likely to lack health insurance than white individuals, according to the CDC. Another factor that can increase COVID-19 risk is not having paid sick leave, which could discourage employees from taking time off when ill.
Not receiving care: This could result in part from lack of trust in the healthcare system. Black Americans have more distrust of the medical community than white or Hispanic individuals, a recent Pew Research Center study found. While 75% of white adults have a positive view of doctors, only 61% of black adults do so. Additionally, 54% of black adults said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if available, in comparison to 74% of white adults.
Increased likelihood of chronic conditions: The CDC points to underlying medical conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure that are more likely to affect some minority populations. An article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) notes that the higher rates of chronic conditions in minority groups is a common explanation for these populations’ increased risk from COVID-19.
In response to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority populations, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health announced a $40 million initiative in partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine. The National Infrastructure for Mitigating the Impact of COVID-19 within Racial and Ethnic Minority Communities is focused on providing education and resources, sharing COVID-19 response best practices, and connecting communities to testing.
Rural communities are another population at risk amid the COVID-19 crisis. As many practices switched to telehealth visits to reduce exposure, patients with poor Internet connections or limited access to technology faced obstacles to receiving care.
For instance, Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital found telemedicine challenging when delivering care to its largely rural population in North Carolina and Virginia.
“It’s definitely been a challenge in a rural area, where patients struggle with technology and having access,” said LeAnn Hooker, Clinical Administrator, Physician Services.
To determine if your practice provides care to an underserved region, use HRSA’s search tool.
Additionally, providers and healthcare practices can improve care by understanding social determinants of health (SDOH) — factors such as living conditions, education level, or income that impact an individual’s health and access to care. Visit the CDC website for SDOH tools to promote health equity.
Other ways to combat healthcare disparities include providing helpful resources, building trust with patients, and finding solutions to language or cultural barriers preventing care. By recognizing healthcare inequities, providers can take a meaningful step toward improving outcomes during the COVID-19 crisis and into the future.
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