Blog: Flu news from down under and what our children can expect this year. Local doctor shares insights.
Oct 24 2023
Dr. Kobie Douglas was born and raised in Gary, which gives him insight and credibility when discussing an issue that has received increasing notoriety in recent years: health disparities among communities of color compared to White communities.
The research specific to races is compelling. Black Americans, for example, are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than Whites. And Hispanic men and women are almost twice as likely to have and die from liver cancer than Whites.
A 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes a broader conclusion.
“The data show that racial and ethnic minority groups, throughout the United States, experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions,” the report stated, “including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their White counterparts.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made those disparities more obvious and exacerbated them. One grim example: mortality rates of people of color were much higher than those of White people.
Beyond the illness disparities, Dr. Douglas, Regional Health Systems’ Chief Medical Officer, noted that differences also exist between people of color and Whites in their access to healthcare, how diseases and disorders are treated, and outcomes.
“Each particular population has a unique set of circumstances that results in a lot of the data that we see,” said Dr. Douglas, a psychiatrist. “But a lot of the healthcare disparities that we see are really, truly the result of factors other than race and ethnicity. It really is more about the other social determinants of health alongside those racial and ethnic correlations.”
Often, he said, socioeconomic factors—income, underemployment or unemployment, educational opportunities, and incarceration rates—are a defining factor in health disparities between Whites and people of color.
Another of those components that is starting to gain more acceptance, Dr. Douglas said, is the correlation between the violence and trauma a community experiences and its healthcare outcomes. More data is emerging showing that chronic exposure to violence and trauma contributes to anxiety, heart disease, and diabetes, he said.
What can and should be done to resolve the persistent, entrenched circumstances?
At Regional Health Systems, it starts with a commitment to a holistic approach, Dr. Douglas said.
“We want to address our patients’ physical health needs and their mental health needs,” he said. “We are also sensitive to their other challenges, like limited transportation and limited financial means, and other social determinants of health, which can lead to negative health care and health outcomes.”
Regional Health Systems works to find ways to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, Dr. Douglas said. In addition, Regional Health Systems offers housing for some mental health clients, services in psychotherapy, psychiatry, and long-term and outpatient addiction treatment.
“We’re also focused on other preventative strategies,” he said, “such as early childhood development and providing preschool education through our Head Start systems.”
Erasing mistrust, instilling prevention
On a wider scale, Dr. Douglas said resolving entrenched health disparities may start with education in communities of color, which have a longstanding mistrust of the health care system based in a history of its neglect and mistreatment of Blacks and other non-White communities. The age of misinformation is making matters worse, he said.
Communities of color need reliable information and increased awareness of healthy, preventative practices, Dr. Douglas said. Those include appreciating the importance of regular screenings for disorders such as prostate cancer and colon cancer, receiving mammograms, and scheduling visits with primary care physicians, obstetricians for women and pediatricians for children. More attention to mental health is also important, he said.
“There just needs to be a more reliable campaign to promote preventative health,” Dr. Douglas said, “not just after someone gets sick and not just when there’s a need for very expensive, lifesaving medications.”
The health care system in the U.S., which generally is too reactive instead of preventative, also needs to conduct a comprehensive assessment of where it is falling short, he said.
“These patterns don’t come up for no reason,” Dr. Douglas said of health disparities. “They have causes and origins. If we can actually give them the credence that they deserve, perhaps we can come up with some meaningful, long-lasting solutions that can prevent them from happening in the first place.”