HHS Seeks to End Healthcare Disparities, Announces Pipeline Program for Public Health and Biomedical Science

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Disparities 

hhs_logo_largeCase Western’s Disparities blog has a brief article/announcement  well worth considering.  They write:

The Department of Health and Human Services has devised a plan to end racial and ethnic disparities throughout the United States. The new plan will focus on recruiting undergraduates from underserved communities and steer them towards a careers in public health and biomedical science.

The Case Western blog links to an article from Medpage Today which adds that in addition to the pipeline program, HHS has come forward with a plan

for allocating more resources to community health centers, a call to train more people in medical interpretation to help serve patients with a limited command of English, and a push for reimbursement for interpretation services.

Medpage Today also notes that

The strategy tackles a long-acknowledged and persistent problem in the U.S. healthcare system: racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than whites to experience poorer quality care; more likely to suffer from serious illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease; and less likely to get preventive care.

And that

The report calls attention to racial and ethnic disparities in the healthcare workforce. According to a 2008 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, although Hispanics account for about 16% of the total U.S. population, they make up less than 6% of all physicians. African-Americans account for a similar percentage of the U.S. population, but only a little more than 6% of all doctors are black.

I think Case Western gets it right when they say that

This approach is to attempt to diminish these disparities by creating grounds for all to become a part of the ever growing field of public health and biomedical sciences and be able to relate to the populations in which the racial and ethnic occur and provide better care while doing so.

Without diminishing the need for technical ability, to be able to understand and relate to a patient is no small thing. To be able to effectively communicate is key in a medical setting.

Last summer I wrote the following:

A recent study highlighted in the Wall St. Journal’s Health Blog points to both a discrepancy in perception between hospital doctors and their patients and a failure to communicate.

The study was conducted by Douglas P. Olson, MD and Donna M. Windish, MD, MPH. The authors noted as “Background” in the study abstract that:

Hospital surveys indicate lack of patient awareness of diagnoses and treatments, yet physicians report they effectively communicate with patients. Gaps in understanding and communication could result in decreased quality of care. We sought to assess patient knowledge and perspectives of inpatient care and determine differences from physician assessments.

The results of the study were derived from two validated questionnaires given to inpatients treated by “house doctors” over a course of roughly eight months at one hospital.The corresponding doctors were also queried. Eighty-nine patients and 43 doctors participated.

According to WSJ:

The survey – which the authors note is limited by its reach (one institution), patient characteristics (older, indigent and less-educated than average), and general responses, rather than one-to-one-patient-physician comparisons – is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The results? From the abstract:

  • Only 18% of patients knew their main doctor by name.
  • Sixty-seven per cent of doctors believed their patients knew them by name.
  • Fifty-seven per cent of patients knew their diagnosis.
  • Seventy-seven per cent of doctors believed their patients knew their diagnosis.
  • Fifty-eight per cent of patients thought that physicians always explained things in a comprehensible way.
  • Twenty-one per cent of doctors stated they always provided explanations of some kind.
  • Sixty-six per cent of patients reported receiving a new medication in the hospital, 90% noted never being told of any adverse effects of these medications.
  • Ninety-eight per cent of doctors stated that they at least sometimes discussed their patients’ fears and anxieties.
  • Fifty-four per cent of patients said their doctors never did this.

Interestingly enough,the WSJ article notes that the

responses didn’t significantly differ by sex, age, race, language or payment source, for the patients, or level and type of training, for the doctors.

Only 57% of patients knew their diagnosis? Which is to say that 43% did not? 90% not told of potential adverse reactions to new medication?


The study did not take into account the race or linguistic ability of the doctors– just level and type of training. Given the paucity of African American and Hispanic doctors, one wonders if one could have produced a significant number for doctor race and language. But we do know this– as stated above, the healthcare outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities is significantly worse than that of Whites. Is it far-fetched to think that cultural knowledge and linguistic ability– in a practice that requires communication– could lead to better outcomes? I have no belief that the HHS plan is the be all, cure all. But I think it’s a good step in the right direction.

Medpage Today offers the following quote: “Health disparities have burdened our country for too long,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, MD, MPH. “This plan reaffirms and revitalizes a national commitment to helping all persons reach their full health potential.”



Review of Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective

May 31, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Public Health, Recommended Reading 

reconsidering-law-and-policy-debatesReconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective, edited by John Culhane, is a superb collection of thought-provoking essays which features some of the most well-regarded health law scholars in the US. It also includes contributors from schools of public health, public affairs, and public administration. The chapters are uniformly well-written and instructive. Though I cannot in this brief review give consideration to all of the essays, I will try to highlight contributions related to some of my own areas of interest in the intersection between public health and medico-legal research.

Several authors focus on the difficult questions raised by extreme inequality. For example, Vernellia R. Randall’s Dying While Black in America reflects on the disturbing disparity between white and black death rates in the US. A black American male can expect to live seven years less than a white American male, and black women face a four-year gap. Randall explores a number of potential explanations, including discriminatory policies and practices, lack of language and culturally competent care, inadequate inclusion in healthcare research, and hidden discrimination in rationing mechanisms. Randall argues that these disparities will never be addressed effectively until the legal system develops doctrines that can deter not only intentional discrimination, but also “negligent discrimination in healthcare:”

Negligent discrimination in healthcare would occur when healthcare providers failed to take reasonable steps to avoid discrimination based on race when they knew or should have known that their actions would result in discrimination. An example of this would be decisions to close inner-city hospitals and move them to the suburbs. (86)

Randall expertly characterizes race as a key “social determinant of health” in the United States. Countering the many current legal doctrines that promote the legitimation of discrimination, Randall envisions the type of guarantees of equality that will be necessary to realize the antisubordination and antisubjugation principles that animate the 14th Amendment properly understood.

Diane E. Hoffman also addresses stunning inequalities, this time on a global level. Hoffman’s long engagement with end-of-life care informs a consistently sensitive and insightful public health perspective. Considering the situation in the United States, Hoffman concludes that “it is not as all clear that we would want to give the state a public health justification for taking on end-of-life care,” because “we might have trouble reining in the government and preventing it from implementing increasingly more coercive measures” (59). This judgment is particularly pertinent in a political environment where extreme inequality and ever-lower taxes on the wealthiest have imperiled many important health programs for the aged.

However, Hoffman comes to a different conclusion in the case of many developing countries, where the question is less one of rationing access to life extending technologies than it is one of extending access to basic treatments for pain. In a sobering series of statistics, Hoffman presents a tragic panorama of human suffering. In India, only 1% of the 1.6 million people enduring cancer pain each year are likely to receive any type of pain medication. Morphine dispensaries are rare; Calcutta, with 14 million residents, has only one. Though nearly half its population is extremely poor, India is not an outlier. While developing countries account for 80% of world population, they use only 6% of the morphine consumed each year. Sometimes, shortages of medical personnel help explain the problem: for example, in Sierra Leone, there is only one doctor for every 54,000 people (as opposed to a 1:350 ratio in the US). But Hoffman gives several examples of easily preventable policies and business practices that keep painkillers out of the hands of the world’s poorest individuals. This is a truly neglected global crisis, generating levels of suffering that are rarely encountered or even imagined in the developed world.

Returning to the US, the last two chapters in the book are very interesting contributions to ongoing debates about the nature and role of tort doctrine. Elizabeth Weeks Leonard expertly deconstructs the usual dichotomy between tort law’s individualism and the population focus of public health. As she notes, cases involving asbestos, lead paint, silicone breast implants, the Dalkon shield, hazardous autos, tobacco, firearms, Phen-Fen, OxyContin, and Vioxx have all combined efforts by individuals to secure compensation for injuries with broader strikes against destructive products and practices. Weeks succeeds in demonstrating the “counterintuitive fit between tort law and public health law” (189), arguing that each “offers approaches to addressing inevitable conflicts in organized society between individual interests and community needs.”

Jean Macchiaroli Eggen tries to make the fit better by focusing on punitive damages. Toward the end of her chapter, she proposes that states solve the “plaintiff windfall problem” in punitive damages by requiring that “the portion of the punitive award the plaintiff does not receive [due to split-recovery statutes and other measures] be allocated to a state or private program that will enhance the deterrence of the conduct that gave rise to the warden the particular case.” The contributions of both Weeks Leonard and Macchiaroli Eggen would be of great interest to tort classes and seminars considering the difficult issues raised by judicial efforts to address public health concerns.

John Culhane is to be commended for bringing together such an illustrious group of contributors to address public health, an issue that has been neglected in law schools. Knowing full well that factors like income, race, pollution, and even commute length may have a far greater impact on health than, say, dispute resolution methods used by insurance companies, law professors nevertheless tend to focus on purely legal topics. (I am as guilty of this as anyone, and credit this book (and many interventions by Daniel Goldberg) for pushing me to do more to consider the social determinants of health in my own work.) Well after the sturm und drang surrounding the constitutionality of the ACA has dissolved, we will still face problems of balancing liberty, equality, and welfare that this book’s thoughtful contributors address. Their voices deserve to be heard in those future, more substantive, debates.


Missing Care, Missing Drugs: Canaries in the Medical Coal Mine

May 5, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Global Health 

pasquale_frank_lg1While Washington has been focusing on repealing or rolling back parts of the Affordable Care Act, persistent embarrassments of the American health system show how untenable the status quo is. Both lower and middle class families are facing serious problems as they contend with providers’ and insurers’ cost constraints.

I’ll first address the familiar issue of health disparities. According to a recent news report, Lauren E. Wisk of the School of Medicine and Public Health at University of Wisconsin, Madison “examined data from the 2001-2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys on 6,273 families with at least one child.” Wisk’s study shows that excessive financial burdens from cost-sharing are keeping many children from getting the care they need:

Families aren’t choosing to spend their money on going to the doctor when someone is sick because of how much it cost them to see the doctor last time. They’re sacrificing their health because it costs too much to be healthy. . . . We expect that if people aren’t getting the care they need, they’ll be sicker as a result. When you put this all together and look at the big picture, the cost of health care in the U.S. could actually be causing Americans to be sicker.

We might wonder: how can this be? Isn’t the economy in recovery? But we’ve seen this picture before, in the developing world. Growth does not help everyone. India, for example, has had astonishing economic growth, but it “is home to about a third of the world’s underweight and stunted children under the age of 5,” and “the impressive economic growth of the past decade has made only a modest dent into the obstinately high incidence of severe underweight and stunting of children in the country.” As Amartya Sen has shown, not only China, but also Bangladesh, are ahead of India in reducing the number of underweight children, despite the fact that “GNP per capita of $1,170″ in India, “compared with $590 in Bangladesh.” The critical number really is median GNP, and beyond that, real allocation to the sectors and concerns that matter. As the US surpasses Ivory Coast and Pakistan in inequality, don’t count on gains from growth to go to the people who need it.

240px-world_map_1689It’s not just poor patients who need to worry about misplaced priorities in the health care system. We are increasingly seeing shortages of important drugs in the US. (Apparently this issue first caught mass media attention when prisons had a difficult time finding a key barbiturate used in executions.) Given that Congress is busy planning to cut funding for the statistical abstracts of the US and energy research (adding to prior DOJ cuts to studies of industrial concentration in the US), we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that “no one is systematically tracking the toll of the shortages.” Not many journalists are left to report on the government’s failure to report, either. But the head of FDA’s Drug Shortages Program is worried: “This is affecting oncology drugs, critical-care drugs, emergency medicine drugs.” It turns out that much-ballyhooed globalization has some downsides, too:

“We’ve certainly reached a very global supply chain for drug products, with the active ingredients typically made outside of the United States,” said [a] vice president for regulatory sciences at the Generic Pharmaceutical Association. “It could be Europe, India — some cases China. If there’s a problem at a facility in Italy or India, it leads to disruption of the drug supply in the United States.”

And a whole new triage system has developed to address an entirely avoidable crisis:

“We have heard some horror stories where patients are really begging to get the drugs from other sources and where practices or institutions are forced to kind of triage patients and save the drugs for those — quote — most curable, where they have the best prognosis and using substitutes where there isn’t a cure possibility,” [said the] president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

A moving piece by Hagop M. Kantarjian describes the dilemmas facing some leukemia doctors:

Recently I sent out a plea on this national crisis to 8,000 oncologists who subscribe to a monthly e-mail newsletter published by the leukemia department at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Within 12 hours, my in-box was jammed with replies from doctors in more than 25 states, each with his or her own horror story. . . . Take, for example, the 43-year-old Kentucky father who got a substandard dose of cytarabine because his doctor used all the doses he could find but still didn’t have enough. “I don’t know what I’ll do next,” the doctor told me.

Or the 45-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Colorado, father of an incoming Air Force Academy cadet, whose leukemia came back after six months. His doctor looked all over the state for cytarabine with no luck and so was forced to give his patient second-line therapy. Or the 15-year-old boy from Florida who is in remission but can’t get the therapy that will cure him.

I see two takeaways from this sad situation. First, the next time someone says that generic “health care costs” are too high, consider whether they really mean we need to reallocate funds from less productive sectors to this, life-threatening crisis. Second, we need to reconsider the wisdom and necessity of far-flung, fragile supply chains for critical products. Barry Lynn has been making this point for some time. His book Cornered argues that “the drive to reduce costs has led to several competing manufacturers relying on a single overseas supplier for certain components and that this makes the whole system vulnerable to an event like an earthquake, a strike, or a war that might put the single supplier temporarily out of business.” Even for those skeptical of Lynn’s thesis in, say, the automotive or computer sector, his warnings should be salient for the food and health care industries. Too many lives have been put at risk by supply chains that are not robust enough to handle predictable challenges.


Health Care and Disparity in a “Post-Racial” Era

September 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Ethics, Health Reform, Public Health 

Photo by Sean Sime Photography

Seton Hall Law School recently hosted the Third National People of Color Conference, which was convened to “address critical national and global issues through the lens of legal scholarship that explicitly and implicitly examines contemporary racial context.”

The conference brought together over 400 judges, law professors, lawyers and students to our campus over the course of  four days and featured panels and speeches by people such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson; the Honorable Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey; Professor Derek Bell, Visiting Professor at New York University School of Law; Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment; The Honorable Joseph A. Greenaway, U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit; Gay McDougall, United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues; Keith Harper, former Appellate Justice of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; and just too many other smart and interesting people to list here. (A good account of the Conference in Diverse Magazine can be found here).

Involved in some of the on site prep work, I was unable to attend nearly as much as I would have liked. But I did have the opportunity to listen to a number of thought provoking presentations, including speeches by Jesse Jackson, Mayor Booker, Keith Harper and Katleen Martinez.

In considering the theme of the conference, “Our Country, Our World in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era,” it was made clear time and time again that despite the rhetoric that has bounced about our nation since President Obama took office, when looking at numerical indicators for well being in the United States racial identity, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and disability status matter.

I realize that I am saying nothing new here–nor am I saying it as well as I heard it. But I think it also bears repeating.

It is also worth noting, when looking at the disparity in health care access, utilization, and quality of received care, that here in New Jersey as a response to a budget crisis, the state recently summarily stripped over 12,000 legal immigrants of their right to health care through Medicaid. Our Center for Social Justice here at Seton Hall Law has sued the State of New Jersey for doing so as a violation of both the state and federal constitutions as a matter of, among other things, equal protection. Such actions by the state assuredly do not bode well for the health care variance numbers below; and maybe, when considering the disparities in health care, “equal protection,” in the largest sense of the word, is the appropriate lens through which to view this.

But it is also, within the context of anyone’s verbal meanderings about a supposed “post-racial” society, important to note that news of the suit was featured in the Wall Street Journal, Star Ledger, Asbury Park Press, The Record, The Daily Record, The Courier Post, Home News & Tribune, The Jersey Journal, MSNBC, PolitickerNJ, Newsday, Immigration Prof Blog and other media throughout New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.

Reader’s comments were decidedly not kind. Having done a great deal of work with and for immigrant communities, the urban disenfranchised, Guantanamo Detainees, and others unpopular and unjustly treated, we’re used to it here at Seton Hall Law. But I invite anyone entertaining delusions about a “post-racial” era to take a look at the comments. Or, for that matter, the comments on almost any newspaper article that deals with immigration– or race.

Having said that, I also invite you to take a look at the following numbers and study results from HHS’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Below that, you’ll find a really interesting lecture from a Health Care Disparities Class at Case Western Reserve University from Professor Insoo Hyun. The video is courtesy of the Case Center for Reducing Health Disparities and their well produced blog and resource center.

As for the studies and numbers, though just a small sampling, I’ll let them speak for themselves:

Identifying Disparities in Care

Access to Primary Care

Primary care is the underpinning of the health care system, and research studies have shown that having a usual source of care raises the chance that people receive adequate preventive care and other important health services. Data from AHRQ’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) reveal that:

  • About 30 percent of Hispanic and 20 percent of black Americans lack a usual source of health care compared with less than 16 percent of whites.
  • Hispanic children are nearly three times as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have no usual source of health care.
  • African Americans and Hispanic Americans are far more likely to rely on hospitals or clinics for their usual source of care than are white Americans (16 and 13 percent, respectively, v. 8 percent).

Diagnosis and Treatment

Race and ethnicity influence a patient’s chance of receiving many specific procedures and treatments. Of nine hospital procedures investigated in one study, five were significantly less common among African American patients than among white patients; three of those five were also less common among Hispanics, and two were less common among Asian Americans. Other AHRQ-supported studies have revealed additional disparities in patient care for various conditions and care settings including:

  • Heart disease. African Americans are 13 percent less likely to undergo coronary angioplasty and one-third less likely to undergo bypass surgery than are whites.
  • Asthma. Among preschool children hospitalized for asthma, only 7 percent of black and 2 percent of Hispanic children, compared with 21 percent of white children, are prescribed routine medications to prevent future asthma-related hospitalizations.
  • Breast cancer. The length of time between an abnormal screening mammogram and the followup diagnostic test to determine whether a woman has breast cancer is more than twice as long in Asian American, black, and Hispanic women as in white women.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. African Americans with HIV infection are less likely to be on antiretroviral therapy, less likely to receive prophylaxis for Pneumocystis pneumonia, and less likely to be receiving protease inhibitors than other persons with HIV. An HIV infection data coordinating center, now under development, will allow researchers to compare contemporary data on HIV care to examine whether disparities in care among groups are being addressed and to identify any new patterns in treatment that arise.
  • Nursing home care. Asian American, Hispanic, and African American residents of nursing homes are all far less likely than white residents to have sensory and communication aids, such as glasses and hearing aids. A new study of nursing home care is developing measures of disparities in this care setting and their relationship to quality of care.

Looking Beyond Income and Insurance

Disparities in health care are often ascribed to differences in income and access to insurance. Research has shown these to be important, but by no means the only factors. For instance, the proportion of Hispanic Americans with a usual source of care has declined substantially over the past decade (from 80 percent in 1986 to 70 percent in 1996). Insurance coverage has also declined, and the lack of insurance in some groups is dramatic (among Hispanic men, for instance, 37 percent have no health insurance). Nonetheless, declines in insurance coverage explained only one-fifth of the change in access to a usual source of care.

In another recent study, AHRQ-funded researchers in Boston examined the quality of care provided to hospital patients with congestive heart failure or pneumonia. Quality of care was measured both by physician review and by adherence to standards of care. The researchers found no difference in quality of care for patients from poor communities compared with other patients, after adjusting for other factors. They did find, however, that African American patients received a lower quality of care than white patients.

Physician Decisionmaking

A small study of physicians’ decisions about whether to refer patients for cardiac catheterization, a diagnostic procedure for heart disease, provides supportive evidence that factors other than insurance and income can influence the quality of care people get. This study, which used actors portraying similar economic backgrounds, found that black women were significantly less likely than white men to be recommended for referral, despite reporting the same symptoms. (Differences between other groups studied were not statistically significant.)

Hospital Characteristics

In the Boston study of the quality of care, quality for African American patients was lower in nonteaching than in teaching hospitals. In another study, white patients were more likely than Hispanic and African American patients to receive invasive cardiac procedures in hospitals performing a high volume of such procedures, a factor strongly associated with the quality of cardiac care.


Surprise, Surprise: Older Americans are Sicker than their European Counterparts

March 23, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Elder Issues, Quality Improvement 

Health care spending in the United States has increased substantially over the past decades — making the United States the world’s biggest health care spending nation.  Despite spending the most on health care — 2 to 3 times more than European countries per capita — older Americans across the wealth spectrum fare worse than their European counterparts.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Health Disadvantage in US Adults Aged 50 to 74 Years:  A Comparison of the Health of Rich and Poor Americans With That of Europeans, Avendano et al. attempt to explain this phenomenon.  Avendano et al. note,

In this international study, we found that US adults of all wealth levels reported worse health than did Europeans at comparable wealth levels.  Poor Americans were at particularly worse health compared with their English or other European counterparts, but even well-off Americans reported health comparable to substantially poorer Europeans.  Differences in behavioral risk factors accounted for only a fraction of these disparities.

As behavioral factors were insufficient to account for this disparity, Avendano et al. distinguish between national health care systems.

Features of the US health care system may contribute to the worse health of Americans compared with Europeans.  In particular, most European countries have a stronger primary care orientation than does the United States.  Previous evidence suggests that a strong primary care system is associated with better health outcomes, partly because it entails a stronger focus on primary prevention, a more equitable distribution of resources, and a higher efficacy of the health system.

Investing less at the primary care stage where prevention is key, necessarily means that there is a greater focus on disease maintenance or amelioration after its onset.  Which is to say that Americans, for the most part, are not afforded significant medical attention until they are sick.

In addition to having a stronger focus on primary care than the United States, European countries have greater protections for their poor.  European countries offer virtually universal health care coverage, so even the poor have relatively unfettered access to necessary care.  The United States on the other hand, has an uninsured population totaling 41 million (or over 45 million by some estimates).

The fact that health disparities in England still persists despite access to care,

suggests that mechanisms outside the health care system may also be involved.  Wealth enhances access to material resources such as housing, and is a source of immediate consumption in periods of economic strain. Wealth may also increase sense of control over life and other psychosocial resources that can enhance health.

This study gives further credence to the notion that America has at least something to learn from the European health care system.  Universal health care is one component, but focusing more keenly on primary care and easing the social burdens of the poor are another.  Racial health disparities is also an issue that has to be addressed in the United States, but this study restricted its study population to non-Hispanic Whites in order to determine what factors beyond those attributable to race are at issue in the United States’ lag behind its European peers.  Given the fact that racial health disparities are prevalent in the United States, it would not strain reason to conclude that the gap between Americans and Europeans would be exacerbated if racial minorities were included.  The correlation between economic status, residential segregation and well being may help explain why this is the case.

The United States health care system clearly demonstrates that dollars spent is no indication of the quality or efficacy of health care actually received.  Moving into a more cost-effective health care  paradigm that provides access to comprehensive care at a stage where it can impact long-term health is essential.  The Avendano study offers proof of this.