We have all heard the adage “knowledge is power,” but when it comes to flattening the curve of health disparities in the United State, knowledge is also the first step in fighting that battle. By definition, health disparities are differences in how certain demographics are more negatively affected than others regarding healthcare. A current example would be the fact that black and Native American people are five times more likely to get COVID-19 than their white counterparts, and Latino persons are four times as likely.
That current example is one of an almost infinite amount of disproportion when it comes to healthcare in the United States, and educating healthcare professionals, as well as patients is the jumping off point in regard to turning the trend around and eliminating health disparities in the U.S.
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Causes of Disparities
Race, ethnicity, education level, and income are all demographic factors that cause people to be noticeably underserved by the United States healthcare system. Healthcare costs are a major determinant for disparities, with every tax bracket having higher rates of surgical success, disease avoidance, and life expectancy than that of the bracket below them. Communities affected the most by health disparities fall in line with other disproportionate issues in the United States such as school funding and food availability, meaning it is no coincidence and an issue deeply rooted in racial injustice.
With healthier food more difficult to come by in urban areas (and generally more expensive), the causes of the disparities start at the ground floor of society. Dangerous areas mean less kids going out to exercise, old housing means more exposure to allergens, and factories and highways are often closer to low-income neighborhoods, meaning dirty air and more things that negatively affect health.
Health Literacy Education
Health literacy is a patient’s understanding of their issues and the ways to treat them, and avoid future health problems. Much like healthcare itself, the well-off and educated have higher rates of health literacy generally due to more access to healthcare, more frequent visits, and better relationships with their doctors and nurses. Implicit bias in hospitals is a whole other issue, but in short there is plenty of proof that white patients get treated better than minority patients, even if the hospital staff doesn’t intentionally favor one group or another.
Ultimately, health education of all sorts should have health literacy in the syllabus, as the more patients know, the more apt they are to take care of themselves and keep beds open at the hospitals. With the constant evolution of online education (some parked by necessity when coronavirus stay-at-home orders were enacted) becoming more accessible, health literacy education can now reach anyone and everyone with an internet connection, and this will help shrink the gap in the amount of knowledge a given locale of patients may have, both in the U.S. and abroad. Though problems are aplenty in the U.S., there are many areas of the world with little-to-no healthcare information, and educating the masses is easier now more than ever.
Bringing the Two Together
Health literacy education enables patients to understand their options, but this education also needs to be equally distributed, or it will just become another bullet point on the list of health disparities that the system is actively trying to reduce. Studies on the relationships between health disparities and health literacy education are still fairly new, but a general (and sensible) takeaway is that the more education patients have, the better prepared they will be to deal with their health issues, and with that, increasing literacy education in areas underserved by other parts of the healthcare system can allow those groups of people to better help themselves as the system slowly but surely moves towards more equally distributed, higher-quality healthcare options.