Health Disparities Overview


Doctor photoThe term health disparities refers to population-specific differences in the presence of disease, health outcomes, quality of health care and access to health care services that exist across racial and ethnic groups. Disparities represent a lack of efficiency within the health care system and therefore account for unnecessary costs. According to a 2009 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic studies, eliminating health disparities for minorities would have reduced direct medical care expenditures by $229.4 billion between 2003 and 2006.

Many factors contribute to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic health disparities, including inadequate access to care, poor quality of care, community features (such as poverty and violence) and personal behaviors. These factors are often associated with underserved racial and ethnic minority groups, individuals who have experienced economic obstacles, those with disabilities and individuals living within medically underserved communities. Consequently, individuals living in both urban and rural areas may experience health disparities.

Despite ongoing efforts to reduce health disparities in the United States, racial and ethnic disparities in both health and health care persist. Even when income, health insurance and access to care are accounted for, disparities remain.  Low performance on a range of health indicators—such as infant mortality, life expectancy, prevalence of chronic disease, and insurance coverage—reveal differences between racial and ethnic minority populations and their white counterparts. For example:

  • Infants born to black women are approximately twice more likely to die than those born to white women, and American Indian and Alaska Native infants die from SIDS at nearly two times the rate of white infants.
  • Cancer is a leading cause of death for most racial and ethnic minorities. African American men are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, and Hispanic women are nearly 1.5 times as likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer compared to white women.
  • African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives are approximately twice as likely to have diabetes as white individuals; diabetes rates among Hispanics are more than 1.5 times higher than those for whites.

Health Disparities Legislation

Health disparities are getting the attention of legislatures across the country. State policymakers are asking important questions: How are disparities in health eliminated? What is the role of state lawmakers in reducing disparities? How does my state compare to other states? What strategies decrease disparities in a cost effective way? Policymakers are responding to these questions with different kinds of legislation.

Click on the year below to see state legislation related to health disparities. 


Additional Resources


This webpage is funded through the support of The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HRSA, Office of Minority Health

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