A Perfect Storm

A Perfect Storm: Interventions – Closing the survival gap


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part monthly series that will discuss the biologic, genomic, and health system factors that contribute to the racial survival disparity in breast cancer. The series was adapted from an article that originally appeared in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 1 a journal of the American Cancer Society. Eliminating racial disparities in cancer mortality through effective interventions has become an increasingly important imperative of federal, state, and community health care programs. This month’s column reviews interventions to close this survival gap.


It has been posited that interventions aimed at providing insurance coverage to minority patients will be able to reduce racial health care disparities. 2 Studies have indicated that women without insurance present with more-advanced disease, 3,4 and are more likely to receive nonstandard treatment. 5 However, outside of cancer care, a large study of Medicaid expansion in Oregon demonstrated that Medicaid coverage alone generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years. 6 Thus, coverage alone does not ensure that patients will be able to navigate the health care system and that quality care will be provided.

In breast cancer, Hoffman et al. 7 evaluated the effect of race and health insurance on diagnostic time, which was defined as the number of days from suspicious finding to diagnostic resolution (either no evidence of malignancy on diagnostic mammogram or definitive diagnosis by biopsy) in a large, urban setting. The authors’ hypothesis was that every insured patient would receive the same timely diagnosis as any other patient with equivalent insurance, regardless of race or ethnicity. The study found that non-Hispanic whites with government insurance had significantly shorter diagnostic times than did non-Hispanic African Americans with government insurance: The average diagnostic times were 12 and 39 days, respectively. In addition, privately insured non-Hispanic whites also had significantly shorter diagnostic times than did privately insured non-Hispanic African Americans (16 vs. 27 days). In addition, Short et al. 8 demonstrated that when the health plan status was held constant in a retrospective study of 476 white patients and 99 African American patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer, African American patients had a higher mortality rate (8.1% vs. 3.6%) and were diagnosed at a later stage. Accordingly, interventions must go beyond just providing health insurance to minorities in order to have a significant impact on the mortality gap.

Patient education and physician communication

An underlying cause frequently cited for the delayed diagnosis and treatment of African American patients with breast cancer is a lack of patient education and physician communication. These elements are essential components of quality care. In a qualitative study of low-income, ethnically diverse women older than 40 years, Allen et al. 9 identified salient themes differentiating women who received timely follow-up from those who did not. For the women who delayed follow-up, prominent themes were dissatisfaction with the communication of results, disrespect on the part of providers and clinical staff, logistical barriers to accessing services, anxiety and fear about a possible cancer diagnosis, and a lack of information about breast cancer screening and symptoms.


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