Arguably one of the most important public health issues in our nation is the gap between high-quality care and the people who need it most. The passage of the Affordable Care Act was meant, in part, to reduce this gap and increase health equity in terms of both eligibility for, and access to, care. However, lower-income residents, especially those from minority groups, are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes, and to experience infertility, preterm birth, and fetal death.
Health disparities, or inequities, translate not only into greater suffering for certain segments of the population, but also to significantly greater health care costs for everyone. Racial health disparities are associated with an estimated $35 billion annually in excess expenditures, $10 billion in lost productivity, and nearly $200 billion in premature deaths, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. A 2013 study estimated that reducing racial disparities in adverse pregnancy outcomes – preeclampsia, preterm birth, gestational diabetes mellitus, and fetal death/stillbirth – could generate health care cost savings of up to $214 million per year (Matern Child Health J. 2013 Oct;17:1518-25).
Several years ago, the State of Maryland took a unique approach to reducing health disparities by passing the Maryland Health Improvement and Disparities Reduction Act. One of the major components of this legislation was the creation of Health Enterprise Zones (HEZs), distinct geographical areas across the state dedicated to addressing health disparities and improving access to high-quality care. This incentive-based program provides state-funded resources to primary care providers and community-based health organizations specifically to help the neighborhoods they serve. I was deeply honored to serve as chairman of the task force that recommended the establishment of the HEZs.
Dr. E. Albert Reece
As ob.gyns., we have a moral responsibility to reduce the burden of disease and poor pregnancy outcomes in our patients. Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath states: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” We must remember this as we approach patients whose barriers to good health may include issues with literacy, personal security, or reliable transportation to get to doctors’ appointments, in addition to preexisting conditions or prior pregnancy complications.
For this Master Class, I have invited Melissa A. Simon, MD, the George H. Gardner, MD, Professor of Clinical Gynecology and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, Chicago, to provide some practical advice on how to create greater health equity.
Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. Dr. Reece said he had no relevant financial disclosures. He is the medical editor of this column. Contact him at [email protected].