Preventative medicine holds the key to keeping people healthy, yet many minorities lack access to this all-important care. April’s National Minority Health Month seeks to raise awareness about this problem with its campaign, Prevention is Power: Taking Action for Health Equity!

Preventive medicine refers to routine doctors’ appointments, vaccines, testing, and other medical procedures that help to stop health problems before they start. Regular health maintenance also helps to catch developing problems early, when they’re most treatable.

What is National Minority Health Month?

National Minority Health Month is an initiative by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that seeks to raise awareness about the dearth of preventive care and corresponding poor health outcomes that minority communities face.

The CDC aims to both raise awareness and reduce these disparities through multiple programs, including Million Hearts, which hopes to reduce deaths related to cardiovascular disease across all racial groups, including minority communities that may face an increased risk.

Cardiovascular disease is the top killer of U.S. adults, and minorities are often more likely to die than whites, according to the American Heart Association. African Americans, for instance, face a 33% greater likelihood of dying from a stroke or heart attack than the general population. Minorities often face higher rates of elevated blood pressure and obesity, both risk factors for cardiovascular health events like heart attacks.

Million Hearts seeks to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. The CDC is partnering with many minority community groups, like the Association of Black Cardiologists and the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, to make sure initiatives serve those who need them most.

Another initiative, called the Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration Project, seeks to lower childhood obesity rates, which the CDC says are higher in minority communities. The program helps community leaders encourage healthy eating and exercise behaviors to combat obesity on the grassroots level.

Throughout National Minority Health Month, government agencies will raise awareness through webinars, public proclamations, and social media efforts. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designated a specific message for each week in April and scheduled events accordingly. Click here to see the calendar for National Minority Health Month. Week 2, for example, is Transforming Health Care, and events include a webinar discussing minority access to health care.

What are some of the disparities minorities face in chronic pain treatment?

The African American and Hispanic communities are two of the largest minority groups in the U.S., and also two of the most affected when it comes to health disparities.

In the African American community, for instance, chronic pain patients are more likely to report worse pain than their white counterparts and are more likely to be disabled.

Genetics may contribute to the disparity, as well as cultural differences. Researchers believe blacks may have a lower pain tolerance than people of other genetic makeups. However, African Americans may be less likely to receive proper medication because of a problematic mix of cultural beliefs, poor relationships with medical providers, and discrimination.

Studies have shown that up to 80% of African Americans wait until their pain reaches intolerable levels before calling the doctor. Some African Americans may consider taking medication as a sign of weakness. They may worry about developing an addiction, or perhaps fear doctors because scientists have in the past exploited people in the community.

An infamous example occurred at Tuskegee University, when African Americans with syphilis were told they were receiving treatment, but were instead given a placebo so scientists could study the long-term effects of disease. The study began in 1932 and continued for 40 years without informed consent from participants, according to the CDC. Research continued even after penicillin became the highly effective drug of choice in 1947.

These racial disparities have continued through today, even if only in perception. For example, a study at the University of Virginia found that white children under-estimated the amount of pain black children felt when hitting their heads or having their hands slammed in door. Researchers found this erroneous assumption continued as the children aged.

Other research has shown that African Americans are less likely to receive opioid treatment and more likely to be referred to monitoring for possible addiction than white patients, all while the African American patients’ pain levels were checked less frequently than those of non-black patients.

Doctors may not always be aware of cultural differences that contribute to treatment disparities

Research from Case Western Reserve University found that depression is often under-diagnosed in black cancer patients partially because they use different terminology than white patients that’s not as easily understood by doctors.

African American patients may use words like “feeling down,” “blue,” or “low” to describe depression while white patients may be more likely to bluntly state they feel depressed. Nurse scientist Amy Zhang says:

“Because we don’t use those words in standardized testing, we could be losing people with depression.”

Zhang says tests for depression should include culturally sensitive questions to make sure black patients receive the treatment they need.

In another example of cultural anomalies affecting health outcomes, the more education an African American parent has, the higher the risk their children will experience depression. That’s the exact opposite effect experienced by white children, who face a lower risk of depression when parents are highly educated, according to research from MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

The potential reason for the increased levels of depression was that for black children, having better-educated parents exposed them to greater levels of discrimination, researchers said, underscoring how fundamentally cultural differences impact people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Hispanics also face many health disparities, and are at risk for obesity and related health issues. Many in the community work in labor-intensive jobs, leaving them little time and energy to visit the doctor, says LatinaStrong co-founder Dr. Rebeccah Rodriguez.

The Hispanic community is integral to making Arizona culturally vibrant, and Arizona Pain has responded by creating a Latin American Division that offers culturally sensitive medical care, including Spanish-speaking doctors.

How do you plan to recognize National Minority Health Month?

Image by Army Medicine via Flickr

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