Ethnic disparities in care continue to trouble researchers

Unfortunately, ethnic disparities in care are nothing new--but it's worth noting that evidence of their existence continued to pile up this year. Throughout 2009, studies were published that underscored differences in access, care and mortality rates for non-white patients; worse, few if any of the researchers were able to discover an immediate cause for such differences.

Some examples from this year include a study suggesting that African-American heart attack victims who live in racially-segregated areas are more likely to be admitted to hospitals with higher-than-average mortality rates and research suggesting that excess rates of preventable diseases cost the healthcare system $23.9 billion during 2009 alone.

There also were signs of hope, including evidence that health IT investments and medical homes could close some of the racial disparities in the U.S. system of care.

Still, the ongoing picture continues to be troubling. In any system where race (as well as gender and insurance status) play a significant role in whether you get listed for receiving a donor organ, something is very wrong.

Is racism at the root of these problems? We just don't know. It can't help that only 6 percent of physicians are black or Hispanic, despite these groups accounting for 28 percent of the U.S. population. But ultimately, the problem seems to be multi-faceted, resulting from a mix of factors that haven't been pinned down yet. Let's hope we make more progress on this issue in 2010.

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