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Over the course of its history, the United States has experienced dramatic improvements in overall health and life expectancy, largely as a result of initiatives in public health, health promotion, disease prevention, and chronic care management. Our ability to prevent, detect, and treat diseases in their early stages has allowed us to target and reduce rates of morbidity and mortality. Despite interventions that have improved the overall health of the majority of Americans, racial and ethnic minorities (blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans/Alaskan Natives, Asian/Pacific Islanders) have benefited less from these advances than whites and have suffered poorer health outcomes from many major diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Research has revealed that minorities may receive less care and lower-quality care than whites, even when confounders such as stage of presentation, comorbidities, and health insurance are controlled. These differences in quality are called racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Addressing these disparities has taken on greater importance with the significant transformation of the U.S. health care system and the implementation of health care reform and value-based purchasing. The shift toward creating financial incentives and disincentives to achieve quality goals makes focusing on those who receive lower-quality care more important than ever before. This chapter will provide an overview of racial and ethnic disparities in health and health care, identify root causes, and provide key recommendations to address these disparities at both the clinical and health system levels.


Minority Americans have poorer health outcomes than whites from preventable and treatable conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer, and HIV/AIDS (Fig. 16e-1). Multiple factors contribute to these racial and ethnic disparities in health. First and foremost, social determinants—such as lower socioeconomic status (SES; e.g., lower income, less wealth, and lower educational attainment), inadequate and unsafe housing, and racism—are strongly linked to poor health outcomes. These factors disproportionately impact minority populations. In fact, SES has consistently been found to be one of the strongest predictors of health outcomes. While the mechanisms are complex (i.e., does poverty cause poor health, or does poor health cause poverty?), it is clear that low-SES populations experience disparities in health and that low SES is a major factor in racial/ethnic disparities.

FIGURE 16e-1

Age-adjusted death rates for selected causes by race and Hispanic origin, 2005. (From the U.S. Census Bureau, 2009.)

Racial/ethnic disparities are documented globally, although their assessment has centered more on the comparison of individuals by SES in other countries than in the United States. Similar to the U.S. pattern, low-SES residents of other nations tend to have poorer health outcomes. It is noteworthy that results are mixed when the health status of nations is compared by SES. High-SES nations such as the United States do not necessarily have health ...

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