Original Research

Health Care Disparities Among Adolescents and Adults With Sickle Cell Disease: A Community-Based Needs Assessment to Inform Intervention Strategies



From the University of California San Francisco (Dr. Treadwell, Dr. Hessler, Yumei Chen, Swapandeep Mushiana, Dr. Potter, and Dr. Vichinsky), the University of California Los Angeles (Dr. Jacob), and the University of California Berkeley (Alex Chen).


  • Objective: Adolescents and adults with sickle cell disease (SCD) face pervasive disparities in health resources and outcomes. We explored barriers to and facilitators of care to identify opportunities to support implementation of evidence-based interventions aimed at improving care quality for patients with SCD.
  • Methods: We engaged a representative sample of adolescents and adults with SCD (n = 58), health care providers (n = 51), and community stakeholders (health care administrators and community-based organization leads (n = 5) in Northern California in a community-based needs assessment. We conducted group interviews separately with participant groups to obtain in-depth perspectives. Adolescents and adults with SCD completed validated measures of pain interference, quality of care, self-efficacy, and barriers to care. Providers and community stakeholders completed surveys about barriers to SCD care.
  • Results: We triangulated qualitative and quantitative data and found that participants with SCD (mean age, 31 ± 8.6 years), providers, and community stakeholders emphasized the social and emotional burden of SCD as barriers. Concrete barriers agreed upon included insurance and lack of resources for addressing pain impact. Adolescents and adults with SCD identified provider issues (lack of knowledge, implicit bias), transportation, and limited social support as barriers. Negative encounters with the health care system contributed to 84% of adolescents and adults with SCD reporting they chose to manage severe pain at home. Providers focused on structural barriers: lack of access to care guidelines, comfort level with and knowledge of SCD management, and poor care coordination.
  • Conclusion: Strategies for improving access to compassionate, evidence-based quality care, as well as strategies for minimizing the burden of having SCD, are warranted for this medically complex population.

Keywords: barriers to care; quality of care; care access; care coordination.

Sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited chronic medical condition, affects about 100,000 individuals in the United States, a population that is predominantly African American.1 These individuals experience multiple serious and life-threatening complications, most frequently recurrent vaso-occlusive pain episodes,2 and they require interactions with multidisciplinary specialists from childhood. Because of advances in treatments, the majority are reaching adulthood; however, there is a dearth of adult health care providers with the training and expertise to manage their complex medical needs.3 Other concrete barriers to adequate SCD care include insurance and distance to comprehensive SCD centers.4,5

Social, behavioral, and emotional factors may also contribute to challenges with SCD management. SCD may limit daily functional abilities and lead to diminished overall quality of life.6,7 Some adolescents and adults may require high doses of opioids, which contributes to health care providers’ perceptions that there is a high prevalence of drug addiction in the population.8,9 These providers express negative attitudes towards adults with SCD, and, consequently, delay medication administration when it is acutely needed and provide otherwise suboptimal treatment.8,10,11 Adult care providers may also be uncomfortable with prescribing and managing disease-modifying therapies (blood transfusion, hydroxyurea) that have established efficacy.12-17

As 1 of 8 programs funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Sickle Cell Disease Implementation Consortium (SCDIC), we are using implementation science to reduce barriers to care and improve quality of care and health care outcomes in SCD.18,19 Given that adolescents and adults with SCD experience high mortality, severe pain, and progressive decline in their ability to function day to day, and also face lack of access to knowledgeable, compassionate providers in primary and emergency settings, the SCDIC focuses on individuals aged 15 to 45 years.6,8,9,11,12

Our regional SCDIC program, the Sickle Cell Care Coordination Initiative (SCCCI), brings together researchers, clinicians, adolescents, and adults with SCD and their families, dedicated community members, policy makers, and administrators to identify and address barriers to health care within 5 counties in Northern California. One of our first steps was to conduct a community-based needs assessment, designed to inform implementation of evidence-based interventions, accounting for unique contextual factors in our region.


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