Thursday, February 10, 2005

Health's a black-and-white issue: Colour-blindness is killing minorities

Andre Picard has long been one of my favourite writers at the Globe and Mail. He's been covering the public health beat for a long time and he does an exceptional job. His analysis of health issues is often right on, from my point of view. Today, his column is about the growing gap between the health services that Black Americans receive compared to the white majority. Some of the evidence he cites is startling:
Steven Woolf, director of research in the department of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., calculated that between 1991 and 2000, a staggering 886,000 deaths could have been prevented had African Americans received the same care as whites.

But Dr. Woolf and his team didn't stop there. They calculated that technological improvements in medicine -- better drugs, new medical devices, improved surgical procedures -- averted 176,633 deaths in the general population during that same period.

What this means, practically speaking, is that five times as many lives could be saved by correcting the disparities in care between blacks and whites, than in developing fancy new treatments.

"The prudence of investing billions in the development of new drugs and technologies, while investing only a fraction of that amount in the correction of disparities, deserves reconsideration. It is an imbalance that may claim more lives than it saves," Dr. Woolf said.

Although Picard doesn't come right out and say it, there are obvious parallels to Canada. One can't help but wonder whether Canada's aboriginal population suffers similar inequities in this country, despite our supposed equal access to health care.

Picard's column notes that February is Black History Month, at least in the US. Let's hope that stories like this start to get the attention of our leaders, instead of things like the hockey lock-out or the debate over same-sex marriage. There are real, life and death issues in this world that are crying out for some serious attention.

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