health disparities

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Childbirth Complications: Some Hospitals Have 5 Times More, But Which Ones?

(pumicehead/Flickr)

(pumicehead/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

The risk of a major complication of childbirth can be up to five times higher at one hospital versus another, a new study finds. But there’s no way expectant mothers can tell the high-risk hospitals from the low — at least, not yet.

A study in this month’s Health Affairs is the first ever to examine hospitals’ childbirth complication rates on a national basis. Authors looked at a representative sample of more than 750,000 deliveries that took place in 2010 at hospitals large and small, urban and rural, including both teaching and community institutions.

Major complications include hemorrhaging, infections, vaginal lacerations and blood clots. Unlike major complications from, say, cardiac surgery, these obstetrical glitches are not generally life-threatening.

On the other hand, as Dr. Laurent Glance, the study’s lead author, tells CommonHealth: “The vast majority of women of childbearing age are fairly healthy people. They can reasonably expect to have a baby without any complications.”

The study found that for women delivering vaginally, the risk of a major complication can be more than double at a “low-performing” hospital (23 percent) than a “high-performing” institution (10 percent).

When it comes to cesarean deliveries, the disparities are even greater — 21 percent at a low-performing hospital versus a little over 4 percent at a high-performing obstetrical unit.

The study doesn’t provide Massachusetts-specific complication rates, but the researchers found no significant differences between Northeast hospitals and other regions. “It’s reasonable to assume there is a similar amount of variation [among Massachusetts hospitals], but we can’t say for sure,” Glance says.

If you think of the results in a big-picture way, it means that among the roughly 4 million American births a year, hundreds of thousands of women could avoid childbirth complications if somehow low-performing hospitals could raise their outcomes to those of their betters. Extrapolating from the new study, about 520,000 new mothers suffer a major complication.

The wide disparities in childbirth complications care are especially striking when you consider how big a slice obstetrics represents of the total health care pie. Continue reading

Survey: Transgender Discrimination In Mass. Public Spots, Health Effects Seen

(Codep08/Compfight)

(Codep08/Compfight)

By Qainat Khan
WBUR

On a break from her job near South Station, Vivian Taylor was on her way in to use the station’s ladies’ room when a man suddenly blocked her way, she recalls.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked her, threateningly.

“I didn’t want to have a confrontation while I was at work, but it was a very unsettling experience,” said Taylor, a transgender woman who served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010. “For about the next half hour, that fella just stood there — as if he was on guard — standing there glaring at me in front of the door to the bathroom.”

A survey out today suggests Taylor’s experience is not uncommon. The results, based on 452 responses, show that almost two-thirds of transgender and gender non-conforming Massachusetts residents experienced discrimination last year in public places, including transportation, retail and health care settings.

The survey, conducted by The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health and the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, found that respondents who reported discrimination had an 84 percent increased risk of adverse physical symptoms associated with stress — such as headaches, upset stomachs and pounding hearts — and a 99 percent increased risk of emotional symptoms compared to respondents who reported no such discrimination in the past year.

“It’s a hard thing to have to go through the world just having to be that conscious of your own safety,” Taylor, who was a respondent on the survey, said. “That’s a very stressful experience, to just always know that it’s possible that somebody is going to come after you for no other reason than what you look like, or how you dress, or what your voice sounds like.”

The survey also found that 20 percent of respondents postponed or did not seek health care because of prior discrimination in a medical setting. Five percent of respondents said a health care provider refused to provide them with care because of their gender identity. Continue reading

Poor Get Poorer But Babies Get Healthier, Thanks To Help For Moms

Patricia Wornum,right, is a 'home visitor' with Healthy Families. Every two weeks she check in with Keisha Harrison and her daughter, Cassidy, in their Dorchester home. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

Patricia Wornum,right, is a ‘home visitor’ with Healthy Families. Every two weeks she check in with Keisha Harrison and her daughter, Cassidy, in their Dorchester home. (Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

In elephant-print pajamas, 21-month-old Cassidy nuzzles her head into her mother’s lap and then pops up, grabs a ballpoint pen, and starts scribbling. Her squiggles decorate an important piece of paper; it contains a checklist of all the things her mother does for Cassidy, from getting her shots to daily reading aloud.

Cassidy and her mother, Keisha Harrison, are in their Dorchester living room with Patricia Wornum, a “home visitor” with Healthy Families Massachusetts. On the couch, Wornum glances at the decorated checklist and, in her perpetually upbeat manner, asks: “Any papers back from housing?”

Harrison shakes her head. She hasn’t heard anything about her various applications for subsidized public housing. She and Cassidy are staying with her mom — at age 20, she has aged out of a teen shelter — so Harrison is worried they’ve lost their spot on the housing waiting list. Wornum immediately makes a plan to figure out what’s going on. “You got this!” she says.

Wornum and over a hundred other home visitors in Massachusetts are trying to combat a known phenomenon: If you are born to a poor mother, that overwhelmingly raises the chances that you will grow up to be poor. The odds are stacked against you in several ways: Poverty can mean stress and anxiety, poor nutrition and environmental toxins, higher risks of obesity and heart disease. An entire issue of the journal Science on “The Science of Inequality” this month rounded up some of that bad news.

But it also shared what Janet Currie, an economics professor at Princeton, calls a “bright spot” — though inequality has been rising, the health of newborns born into the poorest families has been improving.  TWEET The conclusion: Public policies can make a difference and improve a child’s chance of success. The “Science” article she co-authored looks at which policies are most effective, and found many that work, from early education to family planning services. Home visiting programs like Wornum’s appear to work particularly well.

“You often just hear about how things are getting worse,” Currie says. “The unfortunate consequence of that is that people are left with the impression that nothing works. We wanted to point out that there are programs that work, that they do make a difference.”

What The Statistics Say

Keisha Harrison was in high school when she found out she was pregnant. She remembers it as a clarifying moment.

“Before I was pregnant I really didn’t think I was going to graduate,” says Harrison. “And then once I got pregnant, I just kicked everything into high gear.” Continue reading

Report: Disabled Mass. Residents Face Major Health Disparities

health disparities

A new report highlights the many ways in which Massachusetts residents with disabilities “fare worse” than those without disabilities when it comes to their own physical and mental health as well as access to quality medical care from doctors sensitive to their needs.

This phenomenon isn’t new. Previous research found that many barriers still exist that prevent disabled patients from accessing specialty medical care. And for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, sometimes finding a doctor willing to treat even common medical conditions can be difficult.

The latest report, by researchers at UMass Medical School’s Disability, Health and Employment Unit working and the Health and Disability Program at the state Department of Public Health, also suggests that the state could do more to ensure that disabled patients have access to health care providers who both understand and can help with the specific medical challenges of this population.

I asked the researchers, led by Monika Mitra, PhD, assistant professor in UMass Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, to lay out the key messages of the report. Here are some of their findings:

• 24% of those with disabilities are current smokers compared to 16% of adults without disabilities.
• Both men (7%) and women (24%) with disabilities were more likely to report lifetime sexual violence compared to men (4%) and women (19%) without disabilities.
• Adults with disabilities (64%) were twice as likely to report being overweight as those without disabilities (34%).

In addition, people with disabilities surveyed in the study reported the following health-related concerns:

• Affordable housing (77% of respondents reported this was a problem);​
• Adequate dental care (64%);
• Adequate mental health services (62%);
• Finding a doctor who is sensitive to disability issues (55%);
• Transportation to doctor’s appointments (54%);
• Communication supports, such as large print, Braille, Computer Assisted Realtime Translation (CART) readers, etc. (52%);
• Managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes (50%);
• Paying for prescription medications (48%);
• Finding a doctor who accepts public health insurance (48%); and
• Accessible gyms (45%).

Continue reading

Exporting The Couch Potato Lifestyle (And Obesity) Via TV, Computers, Cars

(Aaron Escobar/Wikimedia Commons)

(Aaron Escobar/Wikimedia Commons)

A new study finds that the luxuries of modern life come at an extremely high cost: a greater chance of becoming obese or developing diabetes.

Researchers report that in lower-income countries, ownership of a household device — including a car, computer or TV — significantly “increased the likelihood of obesity and diabetes.”  Specifically, owning these items was “associated with decreased physical activity and increased sitting, dietary energy intake, body mass index and waist circumference.” Of the three “devices,” owning a TV had the strongest association with the bad health outcomes.

In poorer countries, such big-ticket items are clearly less prevalent than in rich countries, however they are fast becoming more ubiquitous. And so, apparently, are the ills associated with sitting around watching TV, typing on a computer and driving.

Here’s more from the news release:

The spread of obesity and type-2 diabetes could become epidemic in low-income countries, as more individuals are able to own higher priced items such as TVs, computers and cars. The findings of an international study, led by Simon Fraser University health sciences professor Scott Lear, are published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Lear headed an international research team that analyzed data on more than 150,000 adults from 17 countries, ranging from high and middle income to low-income nations.

Researchers, who questioned participants about ownership as well as physical activity and diet, found a 400 per cent increase in obesity and a 250 per cent increase in diabetes among owners of these items in low-income countries.

The study also showed that owning all three devices was associated with a 31 per cent decrease in physical activity, 21 per cent increase in sitting and a 9 cm increase in waist size compared with those who owned no devices. Continue reading

Insights On Why Some Girls Are Skirting The HPV Vaccine

Public health officials have been somewhat puzzled by low rates of HPV vaccination: only 54% of adolescent girls receive the first dose of the 3-part vaccine series, and only 33% complete it.

What gives? Doctors recommend it. It’s safe and effective. It has the potential to save thousands of lives every year. So why aren’t more people getting the HPV vaccine?

A young girl after getting the HPV vaccine

A young girl after getting the HPV vaccine

A new study by doctors and public health researchers at the University of Colorado sheds light on who remains unvaccinated and why. (While the full article has not yet been released, the authors recently presented their research with an abstract and poster.) It builds on previous findings that deserve mention: women of low socioeconomic status have the highest risk of developing cervical cancer because of their limited access to other preventative measures, like annual exams and pap smears. In other words, poor women need the HPV vaccine the most. But among the girls who begin the vaccine series, minorities and the impoverished are much less likely to complete it.

To find out why, the researchers, led by Sean O’Leary, MD, MPH, interviewed the parents of girls with an incomplete HPV vaccination. They recruited both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parents for the study to see if there were any major differences in reasoning or access to care.

As it turns out, two big issues appear to be at play here: parents don’t understand the importance of completing the vaccine series, and healthcare providers aren’t following up about scheduling doses 2 and 3. Spanish-speaking parents had particular trouble with the latter; one parent reported that their provider was “not clear on when to get the next [shot in the series],” even though they wanted their daughter to complete the series “because we are responsible.”

What we’re looking at, it seems, is a bit of a break-down in doctor-patient communication. Continue reading

Menthol Perils: ‘Health Enemy #1 For African-Americans’

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

The FDA this week issued a “preliminary” report after more than two years of study, concluding that menthol isn’t inherently dangerous in cigarettes, but that by masking the harsh flavor, it induces more people to start smoking and makes it harder for them to stop. The report was seen as a step toward an eventual ban on menthol in cigarettes – the one flavoring not already prohibited by federal law.

Now, public health experts say, it’s time to take menthol out of cigarettes.

cigarettes

“It makes smoking a blowtorch taste like rice pudding,” says Harvard School of Public Health Professor Gregory Connolly, director of the school’s Center for Global Tobacco Control. “And unfortunately, what’s in that rice pudding is very heavy toxins that go right to the lungs and you wind up with lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, and so forth.”

Connolly, and several other local public health experts, says there’s no scientific doubt that menthol in cigarettes is a problem. And it’s one that disproportionately harms African-Americans and young people – who have a marked preference for menthol.

“If you ask me what is Public Health Enemy #1 for the African-American community in terms cancer: it’s Newport cigarettes – the menthol in cigarettes,” Connolly says. Continue reading

Mass. Teen Birth Rate Hits Record Low; Black Infant Mortality Tops Whites

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports on new data released by the state Department of Public Health:

Seventeen out of 1000 teenagers in Massachusetts had a baby in 2010. That’s half the national average. Patricia Quinn, director of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, says teenagers today do a better job with contraception than did their parents.

 (kristaguenin/flickr)

(kristaguenin/flickr)

“That’s not a message that adults wrap their heads around on a regular basis that young people could be doing more right than we did when we were teens and that is definitely the case when it comes to teen pregnancy and sexual behavior,” Quinn said.

Quinn says state figures out today also shows that teen abortion rates have declined 68% since a peak in 1989. And teen births rates are at a record low.

Black babies continue to a have much greater chance of dying before their first birthday in Massachusetts as compared to white infants….

The Public Health report says the black infant mortality rate is almost two and half times that of white infants. The gap has been higher, but health leaders say the numbers are still unacceptable. Department of Public Health interim commissioner Lauren Smith.

“This just remains a call to us to focus even more intensely on the health of women of childbearing age before they even become pregnant,” Smith said.

Barriers Block Disabled Patients From Specialty Care, Study Finds

If you’re disabled and in a wheelchair, gaining full access to basic medical care can still be elusive, a new report finds.

The study, published online in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, focuses on speciality care and concludes that even in our high-tech environment, something that seems fairly low-tech — getting a patient on to an exam table — doesn’t happen in many doctor’s offices. “Many sub-specialists could not accommodate a patient with mobility impairment because they could not transfer the patient to an examination table,” the report states.

It’s widely known — and a huge problem — that adults who use wheelchairs often face difficulties getting a complete physical examination because they have trouble getting on the exam table, says Dr. Lisa I. Iezzoni, director of the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Iezzoni, who has used a wheelchair for nearly 25 years because of multiple sclerosis, recently authored a report that found people with disabilities face major obstacles accessing a range of health services, from cancer screening to various medical treatments.) As a result, the study authors note, this patient population receives “less preventive care than their able-bodied counterparts.”

Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center

Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center

To investigate the problem further, researchers led by Dr. Tara Lagu, an internist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, enlisted medical students and residents to make appointments for a fictional obese (219 pounds), wheelchair-using patient with a recent stroke. They called doctors in four states (Massachusetts, Georgia, Oregon and Texas) and included a range of specialists — endocrinologists, gynecologists, orthopedic surgeons, ophthalmologists and psychiatrists, among others.

“We wanted a real-life snapshot of accessibility,” Lagu said. The callers would say: “I’m an internal medical resident trying to make an appointment for my patient — they had a specific script they had to adhere to.”

Shockingly, many of the office staff flat out refused to make an appointment, the researchers report. When asked why, some of these office staffers were quite direct and said it was not possible to get the disabled person on to the exam table.

You can listen to Lagu discuss the research here. But the bottom line (from the abstract) is this:

Of 256 practices, 56 (22%) reported that they could not accommodate the patient, 9 (4%) reported that the building was inaccessible, 47 (18%) reported inability to transfer a patient from a wheelchair to an examination table, and 22 (9%) reported use of height-adjustable tables or a lift for transfer. Gynecology was the subspecialty with the highest rate of inaccessible practices (44%).

Lagu said the study tracks with her “real life experience,” after 10 years as a doctor. “Pretty much everywhere I’ve been in my career, I’ve encountered this or a similar problem,” she said. Continue reading

Why Are 4 Out Of 5 Black Women Obese, Overweight?

This statistic, from a BU Today report on fighting obesity, is enough to ruin your morning: “No population in the United States has a higher obesity rate than African American women, four out of five of whom are overweight or obese, according to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

No population has a higher overweight and obesity rate than African-American women (Spree2010/flickr)

The causes of this alarming obesity rate are various and complex and range from genes and diet to socioeconomic status and the environment, according to Julie Palmer, a senior epidemiologist at Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center who has coordinated the Black Women’s Health Study since 1995. In the BU piece, Palmer details some of these causes and potential fixes:

On Diet

“…when the women were asked how often they ate out and what type of fast food they chose—burgers, pizza, Mexican, Chinese, fried chicken, or fried fish—those who frequently chose the first option had the most consequences. “We found that eating burgers from fast food or other restaurants definitely increased risk for obesity,” Continue reading