Health Disparities And Social Work

Navigating the health care system at any level can often be confusing and frustrating, but understanding how the system works is integral to obtaining the full range of benefits. Unfortunately, gaining access to those benefits is often tied to education and class. The evident health disparities between socioeconomic, racial and cultural groups link social work and health care in the fight against poverty and inequality.

The National Institute of Health defines a health disparity as “a difference in the incidence, prevalence, mortality and burden of diseases and adverse health conditions that exist among specific population groups in the United States.” Contemporary health disparities typically affect infant mortality rates, access to immunizations, cancer screenings/management and rates of heart disease, HIV/AIDS and diabetes.

The Office of Minority Health Resource Center records some of the impact of health disparities in the United States. A few statistics the center reports include:

  • Heart disease rates amongst African Americans are 30 percent higher than that of the white adult population.

  • Obesity rates are higher in female members of minority groups than the population at large.

  • Diabetes rates are 70 percent higher in African Americans and 100 percent higher in Latinos than they are in the white adult population.

  • Seventy-five percent of all adult AIDS cases and 81 percent of all pediatric AIDS cases are among African Americans and Latinos.

Much of the research surrounding these disparities links the cause to poverty in several different ways:

  • In access to proper health care due to a lack of financial resources, insurance or time due to work constraints;

  • In the amount of more physically taxing work impoverished communities must perform to support themselves; and

  • In the lack of education concerning the health care system and benefits to which citizens are entitled.

How Social Workers Address Health Disparities

Social workers have been engaged in research relating directly to health disparities, the particular attributes and needs of various populations as defined by culture or socioeconomic status and the interplay between health and economic status. Social workers understand that the keys to better health include: a safe place to live (free of stress and physical danger), as well as access to resources and a well-rounded education. As an advocate, it is the role of the social worker to speak out and educate communities, hospital staff and public service workers to ensure that they are culturally competent so that they are prepared to implement policies addressing health disparities where applicable.

Social Workers and The Affordable Care Act

One of the greatest accomplishments of social work professionals has been aiding in the passage of The Affordable Care Act, which will provide access to health insurance to more than 30 million uninsured Americans. Acting as advocates for uninsured communities, social workers communicated their clients’ needs and encouraged communities to contact their representatives to pass the act.

Moving forward, social workers will need to push for each state to implement the Affordable Care Act, as many state governments are still debating the needs of the particular communities they serve. It will also be important for social workers to become familiar with changes to Medicaid and behavioral health services, as more people will able to access it.

Though the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction towards addressing health disparities, social workers cannot sit back and expect the gap to bridge itself. It is only by working together, organizing amongst their communities and advocating vociferously for their clients that social workers will be able to ensure that health disparities become a thing of the past. Thankfully, we’re already heading in the right direction.