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A recent study that reported no association between race and in-hospital mortality among patients with COVID-19 failed to capture broader health care inequities, according to a leading expert.
During an AGA FORWARD Program webinar, Darrell Gray II, MD, deputy director of the Center for Cancer Health Equity at Ohio State University in Columbus, noted that the study by Baligh R. Yehia, MD, and colleagues had several important limitations: specifically, a lack of data from before or after hospitalization, flawed neighborhood deprivation indices, and poorly characterized comorbidities.
While Dr. Yehia and colleagues described these limitations in their publication, Dr. Gray suggested that future studies evaluating race and health outcomes need to be “deliberate and intentional with collecting data.”
According to Dr. Gray, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the APM Research Lab paint a more accurate picture of health care inequities. The CDC, for instance, reports that people who are Black are nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and approximately twice as likely to die from the disease, compared with those who are White. The APM Research Lab reports an even more striking relative mortality rate for Black Americans – almost four times higher than that of White Americans.
“People of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, whether it be by cases, hospitalizations, or deaths,” Dr. Gray said. “We have to think about why that is, and what has led to this.”
Dr. Gray emphasized that poorer outcomes among people of color are “not necessarily biological.”
“It’s the environment and social constructs that contribute to why there’s a disproportionate burden of chronic disease and why there’s a disproportionate burden of COVID-19,” he said.
According to Dr. Gray, disparate health care outcomes can be traced back to social determinants of health, which he and his colleagues highlighted in a June comment published in Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology.
“Although much attention has focused on the high burden of chronic disease among [people of color], which predisposes them to poor outcomes if they acquire COVID-19, there is less recognition of the nonmedical health-related social needs and social determinants of health that represent the root causes of such health disparities,” they wrote.
Social determinants of health include an array of population factors, including economic stability, social and community context, neighborhood and environment, education, and access to health care.
For each, Dr. Gray encouraged comprehensive and nuanced assessment.
“Is there access to health care?” Dr. Gray asked. “Not just access in the sense of having insurance — certainly that’s a benefit — but if someone has insurance, can they get to where the health center is? Or is that something they might have to catch three buses and a cab to get to?”
Dr. Gray said that such obstacles are not outside the scope of the medical community.
“This is not beyond our responsibility…to address social determinants of health,” Dr. Gray said.
When asked by a webinar attendee how the medical community can tackle racism, Dr. Gray offered several practical steps to move forward.
First, he suggested that clinicians and researchers listen to affected patient populations.
“Many of us, including clinicians, have been privileged to have their blinders on, if you will, to issues of racism that have been affecting our patients for a long time,” he said.
Second, Dr. Gray encouraged those who have learned to teach others.
“You need to start teaching your peers, your colleagues, your family, and friends about how racism affects patient outcomes.”
Third, he recommended that clinicians incorporate these lessons into routine practice, whether in a private or an academic setting.
“Are there ways in which you can refer patients to address social determinants of health? Are you capturing that information in your check-in materials?” Dr. Gray asked. “If you’re an investigator, when you’re doing research — whether it’s health disparities research or other — are you looking at your research through a health equity lens? Are you asking questions about social determinants of health?”
Finally, Dr. Gray called for stronger community engagement during design and conduction of clinical trials.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. “And they won’t know how much you care unless you’re visible, and unless you’re there, and these are sustainable relationships.”
The FORWARD program is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.