By Gayle Gupit-Mayor
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
April is National Minority Health Month (NMHM), and this year’s theme is “Give Your Community a Boost!”
NMHM is an initiative promoted by the Office of Minority Health that focuses on the health concerns of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and other underserved groups. Through disease prevention and early identification, the objective is to remove the disproportionate burden of premature mortality and avoidable illnesses in minority communities.
This year’s theme focuses on the role individuals and organizations can play in reducing minority health inequities by highlighting the importance of COVID-19 vaccination, including COVID-19 boosters, and disseminating trustworthy information as critical strategies for ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
A report from Public Health Seattle & King County (PHSKC) with data taken from the Social & Economic Risk Index illustrates that COVID-19 testing rates were lower among communities with essential non-healthcare workers, lower education and income levels, larger households, and households with foreign-born residents or limited English proficiency households, which results to higher COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Life expectancy is lower and rates of death higher in King County neighborhoods with lower levels of education, poverty, and diverse racial and ethnic populations, according to data from a neighborhood-level study published in Lancet Public Health by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and PHSKC.
“These inequalities or differences in health outcomes found in different sub-groups of the population are known as health disparities,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Health Officer for Seattle & King County Department of Public Health, in a Q&A posted on the King County Public Health Insider web page.
The study shows that minority groups in downtown Seattle, southern areas of Seattle, and southwest King County experience a greater share of illness and injury in comparison to Mercer Island and other cities in the eastside.
“We also see higher levels of poverty, lower levels of educational attainment and other social inequities, driven, in part, by a long history of underinvestment and social injustice,” said Duchin.
Minority groups are also less likely to be able to afford healthcare and face other risks associated with the COVID-19 virus. This is especially true for undocumented immigrants, who often struggle to get access to basic health services.
“The poorer a person is, the greater the struggle to meet the basic necessities of life—access to healthy food, opportunities for recreation, safe homes in safe neighborhoods, good schools, employment, and transportation options,” said Duchin. “Additionally, increased barriers in meeting these necessities leads to chronic stress, which increases the chance of illness and disability.”
The neighborhood-level study showed that minority groups are more likely to suffer from heart disease. This may be due to lack of access to screening services, cultural beliefs about healthcare that lead people to delay treatment, and economic disparities that limit people’s ability to afford necessary care.
“A few conditions like cardiovascular disease, if prevented, would make the greatest difference in both improving overall health and reducing disparities,” said Duchin.
Mental health is another area where minorities face significant disparities relative to the general population in the U.S. Several studies show that minorities have less access to mental health services than whites, are less likely to obtain needed therapy, and are more likely to receive low quality care when they do receive treatment.
“While Seattle is a melting pot of cultures, I feel that the disparities in mental health are further enhanced by the lack of easy access to culturally-specific services,” said Luisa Kwok, a behavioral health outreach clinician for Sound, a local nonprofit agency that offers mental health services.
Kwok believes that Seattle is very resource-dense, but to support the community’s mental health issues, organizations must truly understand the population they’re offering their services to and constantly work on refinements to address how they could be better served.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, anti-Asian hate has been amplified because Asians are often seen as responsible for the outbreak. Psychological stress, brought on by anti-Asian hate, makes Asians more vulnerable to mental health problems associated with the pandemic.
“Race can have an effect on our mental health when others push their ideas of the race we identify with based on their understanding of it. It is unfortunate that people’s understanding of other races can sometimes be flawed or misinformed,” said Kwok.
In the Seattle community, International Community Health Services (ICHS) has been addressing racial disparities in healthcare for more than four decades. ICHS has been tackling racism head-on by providing culturally and linguistically appropriate health services to minorities.
Previous studies have shown that minority patients are more likely to trust physicians from their own ethnic group, and that this trust can lead to better health outcomes.
Vilma Gutierrez Fernandez and her older sister go to ICHS for their health needs. Fernandez finds the staff very kind and accommodating, and she agrees that familiarity is important.
“I was a care provider for my eldest sister. If I was not available with her appointment at ICHS, I was confident that she would have a good Tagalog interpreter,” said Fernandez.
To address equitable opportunities for all, King County’s Equity and Social Justice initiative has designed a strategic plan to guide policy decisions and services that emphasize the necessity to decrease health inequalities.
It’s also important for advocates from minority communities to share their expertise and participate in health policy debates. Too often, these communities are left out of the conversation, which can lead to policies that don’t match their specific needs.
“It is critical for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander voices to be represented in national policy discussions, particularly around important issues such as culturally competent health care and access,” said Teresita Batayola, president and CEO of ICHS. President Biden recently named Batayola to the Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, one of 25 leaders appointed for the Commission, in a recent ICHS news article.
Individuals and organizations can support policies that improve access to quality healthcare for minorities by implementing targeted education and outreach initiatives and promoting COVID-19 prevention. By working together, we can give our community a boost!
Gayle can be reached at email@example.com.