Reforming the Health of the Black Community: Prevention is Key
Karla L. Robinson, MD
With so much debate in the media regarding healthcare reform, it is hard for anyone to decide on which side of the divide to rest. However, there is no debating the fact that Blacks continue to lead the nation in incidence, prevalence, and mortality rates of many preventable diseases.
High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and many cancers have been found to occur at much higher rates in the Black community. It is estimated that more than 15% of Blacks over age 20 have diabetes, and more than 40% of Blacks have high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, death rates from high blood pressure are more than three times higher in the Black community. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reports that Blacks are more than two times as likely as Whites to die from diabetes. This is just a snapshot of some of the statistics showing that the health of the Black community is in dire straits.
Whether you agree with the proposed health care reform or not, it’s obvious that something has to change. Improving the health of the Black community can begin only after we all start becoming more active participants in our own healthcare. Preventive medicine, health maintenance, and timely screening tests are the keys to reducing the incidence and severity of many preventable and treatable diseases.
Preventive medicine is the focus on the prevention of disease while optimizing overall health and wellness. It is a proactive approach to health aimed at prevention instead of a reactive approach treating disease once it is evident. Many times the onset of disease may be gradual, well before any symptoms are present. It is therefore important to have regular screenings to detect any subtle changes in your health. Regular visits to the doctor, adopting healthy lifestyle and dietary habits, and frequent exercise are just a few steps you can make to take charge of your health and prevent the onset of disease.
Screenings are tests designed to detect early stages of disease before any symptoms or complications are present. In some cases, if diseases aren’t detected until symptoms appear, they become much more difficult to treat, and more costly. Advanced stages of disease often require more aggressive treatment, testing, and procedures, leading to more frequent doctor and hospital visits. Ultimately, these result in larger medical bills and more time spent battling a disease that is easier to treat when caught early.
While screening tests are not available for every disease, they are particularly useful for many diseases where Blacks are disproportionately affected and have much higher death rates such as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. The frequency and timing of health screenings can vary depending on your personal risk for developing disease. Factors such as family history, obesity, smoking, and alcohol use all play a role in your likelihood for developing certain diseases. It is important to have an annual health risk assessment so that you are aware of the diseases you are at risk for and the screenings you are in need of.
Screening tests are initiated by primary health providers and are not typically done in urgent care or emergency room settings. If you have been using these facilities for the majority of your medical care because you don’t have a primary care physician, you have not likely had any necessary health screenings.
Establishing a relationship with a primary healthcare provider can prove to be challenging, particularly if uninsured. In a recent report released by the U.S. Census Bureau, it is estimated that almost 20% of Blacks are without health insurance. Fortunately, there are some limited resources available to help the uninsured receive preventive medical treatment. Most major metropolitan areas have community health clinics that offer basic health care and screenings free of charge. If you lack insurance, the local Board of Health is often a good place to start for a list of medical resources. Contrary to popular belief, there are also a lot of primary care providers that offer greatly discounted services, specialized fee schedules, and reasonable payment plans for preventive medicine office visits. Always inquire about discounts when scheduling an office visit.
Let’s start improving the health of the Black community by shifting the focus towards wellness, prevention, and early disease detection. Take the initiative to make living a healthy life a reality, and exercise your power to make healthy choices. Set the time aside this year to make your health and the health of your loved ones a priority.