The women’s health gap that must be closed

Here’s a startling fact: African-American women are less likely than white women to be diagnosed with breast cancer, yet they have a higher breast cancer death rate.

What’s going on?

The fact that African-American women have been less likely to have proper health coverage has had a lot to do with it. The absence of proper coverage means they are less likely to receive adequate healthcare – and my definition of ‘proper health coverage’ includes and promotes preventative care for women. And the folks behind the Affordable Care Act (ACA) clearly agree. 

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The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more treatable it is. In fact, the same principle applies for many illnesses that have a higher prevalence among African-Americans, such as diabetes. Healthcare among the African-American community is an issue that has gone unaddressed for long enough, and I’m proud to see the system being reworked in a way that will help solve this problem. It’s not that the system was exclusive of African-Americans in the past by design, I must add, but rather it was exclusive of low-income Americans generally. And African-Americans are more likely than other groups to live in and around the poverty line.

The ACA has addressed the healthcare gaps among income groups and have increased insurance coverage among America’s (predominantly African-American) low-income groups through ensuring availability of affordable private health plans and through expanding Medicaid eligibility. In so doing, the ACA is effectively guaranteeing that African-American women of all income levels will now have access to needed health care and preventive services. Furthermore, preventive mammography and other tests related to breast cancer’s early detection are now covered under the ACA without costing an additional copay. The financial burden associated with regular breast cancer screenings and other measures by which women can protect themselves are no longer in the way.

Another issue that undoubtedly contributes to the more troubling numbers of fatal breast cancer incidents among African-American women – and one that the ACA cannot resolve on its own – is a lack of knowledge within parts of the African-American community about the risks, the importance of preventative care, and its availability to them.

This is where community groups and healthcare providers need to step in. It is our job to inform the women of our communities that they have these preventative care options and that acting on those options is critically important. A lack of awareness is not to be taken lightly and it is not to be demeaned. A woman with two jobs, making minimum-wage, is not likely to find the time to read the health section or to watch the morning talk shows and learn about the risks to which she is exposed and the means at her disposal to combat those risks.

It is our job to help fill in the information gap among the women in our community. Information is power, and in this case, it can mean the difference between surviving or succumbing to breast cancer.

Duncan is CEO of Trusted Health Plan (District of Columbia) Inc.