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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Racial Disparities and Health Outcomes

Health professionals have long struggled to explain and combat racial disparities in health care. We know the problem has many causes, but a recent report from the California Endowment comes to a common-sense conclusion: environment plays a crucial role. African American and Latino young men are twice as likely to suffer from poor health outcomes as their white counterparts, the report says, in part because they are 3.4 times more likely to live in poverty.

The statistics paint a bleak picture. HIV and AIDS rates are 3.1 higher for young Latino males, and 6.9 times higher for African American young males. Post-traumatic stress rates are also higher in these groups.

The California Endowment report also links racial health disparities to the prevalence of fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods. Thanks to over-generous federal corn subsidies, fast food is ridiculously cheap and abundant, making it the obvious choice for those struggling to make ends meet. Michelle Obama has said that eliminating "food deserts" -- places where fast food restaurants and convenience stores are the only sources of food -- is key to fighting the epidemic of childhood obesity.

While the California report may seem far removed from the world of employee wellness, I think there are important parallels to consider. For example, is your office a "food desert"? Do your employees have access to healthy food options, or are they left to fend for themselves at the vending machines?

We know that environmental factors contribute to health costs. That's one of the reasons so many companies are asking their employees to complete a health risk assessment. (Here is an example (PDF) of one questionnaire.) The HRA reporting provides valuable insights in categories that you may not have thought about before:
  • Stress management and depression
  • Overall job and life satisfaction
  • Social ties with friends and family
So now I want to hear from you. How should our nation address the problems addressed in the California Endowment report?

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