Literature Review

Advancing health equity in neurology is essential to patient care



Black and Latinx older adults are up to three times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than non-Latinx White adults and tend to experience onset at a younger age with more severe symptoms, according to Monica Rivera-Mindt, PhD, a professor of psychology at Fordham University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. Looking ahead, that means by 2030, nearly 40% of the 8.4 million Americans affected by Alzheimer’s disease will be Black and/or Latinx, she said. These facts were among the stark disparities in health care outcomes Dr. Rivera-Mindt discussed in her presentation on brain health equity at the 2022 annual meeting of the American Neurological Association.

Dr. Rivera-Mindt’s presentation opened the ANA’s plenary session on health disparities and inequities. The plenary, “Advancing Neurologic Equity: Challenges and Paths Forward,” did not simply enumerate racial and ethnic disparities that exist with various neurological conditions. Rather it went beyond the discussion of what disparities exist into understanding the roots of them as well as tips, tools, and resources that can aid clinicians in addressing or ameliorating them.

“Our most prevalent, most burdensome diseases in neurology disproportionately affect persons from minoritized and marginalized backgrounds,” Roy Hamilton, MD, an associate professor of neurology and physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, said. “If clinicians are unaware of these disparities or don’t have any sense of how to start to address or think about them, then they’re really missing out on an important component of their education as persons who take care of patients with brain disorders.”

Dr. Hamilton, who organized the plenary, noted that awareness of these disparities is crucial to comprehensively caring for patients.

Missed opportunities

“We’re talking about disadvantages that are structural and large scale, but those disadvantages play themselves out in the individual encounter,” Dr. Hamilton said. “When physicians see patients, they have to treat the whole patient in front of them,” which means being aware of the risks and factors that could affect a patient’s clinical presentation. “Being aware of disparities has practical impacts on physician judgment,” he said.

For example, recent research in multiple sclerosis (MS) has highlighted how clinicians may be missing diagnosis of this condition in non-White populations because the condition has been regarded for so long as a “White person’s” disease, Dr. Hamilton said. In non-White patients exhibiting MS symptoms, then, clinicians may have been less likely to consider MS as a possibility, thereby delaying diagnosis and treatment.

Those patterns may partly explain why the mortality rate for MS is greater in Black patients, who also show more rapid neurodegeneration than White patients with MS, Lilyana Amezcua, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, reported in the plenary’s second presentation.

Transgender issues

The third session, presented by Nicole Rosendale, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the San Francisco General Hospital neurology inpatient services, examined disparities in neurology within the LGBTQ+ community through representative case studies and then offered specific ways that neurologists could make their practices more inclusive and equitable for sexual and gender minorities.

Her first case study was a 52-year-old man who presented with new-onset seizures, right hemiparesis, and aphasia. A brain biopsy consistent with adenocarcinoma eventually led his physician to discover he had metastatic breast cancer. It turned out the man was transgender and, despite a family history of breast cancer, hadn’t been advised to get breast cancer screenings.

“Breast cancer was not initially on the differential as no one had identified that the patient was transmasculine,” Dr. Rosendale said. A major challenge to providing care to transgender patients is a dearth of data on risks and screening recommendations. Another barrier is low knowledge of LGBTQ+ health among neurologists, Dr. Rosendale said while sharing findings from her 2019 study on the topic and calling for more research in LGBTQ+ populations.

Dr. Rosendale’s second case study dealt with a nonbinary patient who suffered from debilitating headaches for decades, first because they lacked access to health insurance and then because negative experiences with providers dissuaded them from seeking care. In data from the Center for American Progress she shared, 8% of LGB respondents and 22% of transgender respondents said they had avoided or delayed care because of fear of discrimination or mistreatment.

“So it’s not only access but also what experiences people are having when they go in and whether they’re actually even getting access to care or being taken care of,” Dr. Rosendale said. Other findings from the CAP found that:

  • 8% of LGB patients and 29% of transgender patients reported having a clinician refuse to see them.
  • 6% of LGB patients and 12% of transgender patients reported that a clinician refused to give them health care.
  • 9% of LGB patients and 21% of transgender patients experienced harsh or abusive language during a health care experience.
  • 7% of LGB patients and nearly a third (29%) of transgender patients experienced unwanted physical contact, such as fondling or sexual assault.

Reducing the disparities

Adys Mendizabal, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the Institute of Society and Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who attended the presentation, was grateful to see how the various lectures enriched the discussion beyond stating the fact of racial/ethnic disparities and dug into the nuances on how to think about and address these disparities. She particularly appreciated discussion about the need to go out of the way to recruit diverse patient populations for clinical trials while also providing them care.

“It is definitely complicated, but it’s not impossible for an individual neurologist or an individual department to do something to reduce some of the disparities,” Dr. Mendizabal said. “It starts with just knowing that they exist and being aware of some of the things that may be impacting care for a particular patient.”

Tools to counter disparity

In the final presentation, Amy Kind, MD, PhD, the associate dean for social health sciences and programs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, rounded out the discussion by exploring social determinants of health and their influence on outcomes.

“Social determinants impact brain health, and brain health is not distributed equally,” Dr. Kind told attendees. “We have known this for decades, yet disparities persist.”

Dr. Kind described the “exposome,” a “measure of all the exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health,” according to the CDC, and then introduced a tool clinicians can use to better understand social determinants of health in specific geographic areas. The Neighborhood Atlas, which Dr. Kind described in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018, measures 17 social determinants across small population-sensitive areas and provides an area deprivation index. A high area deprivation index is linked to a range of negative outcomes, including reshopitalization, later diagnoses, less comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, increased risk of postsurgical complications, and decreased life expectancy.

“One of the things that really stood out to me about Dr. Kind’s discussion of the use of the area deprivation index was the fact that understanding and quantifying these kinds of risks and exposures is the vehicle for creating the kinds of social changes, including policy changes, that will actually lead to addressing and mitigating some of these lifelong risks and exposures,” Dr. Hamilton said. “It is implausible to think that a specific group of people would be genetically more susceptible to basically every disease that we know,” he added. “It makes much more sense to think that groups of individuals have been subjected systematically to conditions that impair health in a variety of ways.”

Not just race, ethnicity, sex, and gender

Following the four presentations from researchers in health inequities was an Emerging Scholar presentation in which Jay B. Lusk, an MD/MBA candidate at Duke University, Durham, N.C., shared new research findings on the role of neighborhood disadvantage in predicting mortality from coma, stroke, and other neurologic conditions. His findings revealed that living in a neighborhood with greater deprivation substantially increased risk of mortality even after accounting for individual wealth and demographics.

Maria Eugenia Diaz-Ortiz, PhD, of the department of neurology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, said she found the five presentations to be an excellent introduction to people like herself who are in the earlier stages of learning about health equity research.

“I think they introduced various important concepts and frameworks and provided tools for people who don’t know about them,” Dr. Diaz-Ortiz said. “Then they asked important questions and provided some solutions to them.”

Dr. Diaz-Ortiz also appreciated seemingly minor but actually important details in how the speakers presented themselves, such as Dr. Rivera-Mindt opening with a land acknowledgment and her disclosures of “positionality.” The former recognized the traditional Native American custodians of the land on which she lives and works, and the latter revealed details about her as an individual – such as being the Afro-Latinx daughter of immigrants yet being cisgender, able-bodied, and U.S.-born – that show where she falls on the axis of adversity and axis of privilege.

Implications for research

The biggest takeaway for Dr. Diaz-Ortiz, however, came from the first Q&A session when someone asked how to increase underrepresented populations in dementia research. Dr. Rivera-Mindt described her experience engaging these communities by employing “community-based participatory research practices, which involves making yourself a part of the community and making the community active participants in the research,” Dr. Diaz-Ortiz said. “It’s an evidence-based approach that has been shown to increase participation in research not only in her work but in the work of others.”


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