Addressing Health Disparities

It is troubling to many people to see any person suffering in our society. It is even more troubling to see inequality extend to whole ethnic and racial groups within our society. We certainly do not want to be an unjust society, and we certainly want every member of our society to benefit from the technological gains made in the last century.

One of the more troublesome areas that many view as unjust is health and health care. It is unfortunate that some members of our society suffer from disparities in health. For instance, immunizations and vaccines for most of the common deadly pathogens are readily available, yet many people fail to immunize themselves or their family.

Immunization and vaccination programs have eradicated smallpox and polio and have all but eliminated the threat of measles in the United States (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2000). With influenza and pneumonia causing 30,000 to 41,000 deaths in the U. S., annually, the importance of vaccinating against these diseases is quite evident. Obviously, lacking immunity to a deadly pathogen is a disparate condition of health status, and Hispanic and African American populations are vaccinated with less frequency than Whites. How are these issues being addressed?

On the international level, the United Nations (2009) is addressing health disparities by attempting to eradicate poverty on a global scale. Unfortunately, many of these global initiatives have created an environment rife with economic turmoil that we are just now starting to see and understand. Though the premise of helping people out of poverty is very noble, the reality seems to be that we can only offer means for people to help themselves. Otherwise, we risk thrusting whole populations into a world they know nothing about, setting them up for failure. Poverty is based on local economy, and I believe that these interrelated problems are best addressed on the local levels with assistance from states, nations, and global endeavors. The people must direct their own path for a successful transition. They must take responsibility for their own successes and failures.

The United States addresses these concerns on a federal level, offering guidance to states and municipalities in ways to address them. One of these methods is a report from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010 (DHHS, 2000) has two stated major goals: 1) to increase quality and years of healthy life, and 2) to eliminate major health disparities. There are also 467 objectives in 28 focus areas designed to further these two major goals. Immunization is one of these focus areas.

According to the CDC’s National Center for Disease Statistics (2010), the goal of achieving a 90% immunization rate for children 19-35 months of age is close to being reached. The combination diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP) vaccine (85%) and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (75%) are the only two recommended childhood vaccines that are not being administered at least 90% of the time. According to DHHS (2000), the goal for DTP vaccination was 80% in 2000. It appears that this goal has been reached and exceeded.

Conversely, older adults, age 65 and greater, are at an increased risk of contracting illnesses that could be prevented by vaccination. “In 1999 approximately 90 percent of all influenza and pneumonia-related deaths occurred in individuals aged 65 and older” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, 2007, para. 2). DHHS (2000) does not state a quantitative goal for vaccinating noninstitutionalized older adults, though it does mention a need to “increase the proportion of noninstitutionalized adults who are vaccinated annually against influenza and ever vaccinated against pneumococcal disease” (p. 42). In 2000, 46% of the population in the U. S. were vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, and 64% were vaccinated against influenza (DHHS, 2000). In 2009, pneumococcal disease vaccinations increased by 15%, whereas influenza vaccinations increased by only 3% (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, 2010).

Striving to eliminating health disparities is a noble endeavor; however, the mere fact of attaining this goal contributes to the increase of health care disparity. By increasing the health care delivery model for one at-risk population, we must accept negative gains in the delivery of health care for all other populations. This is an example of the law of conservation describing the divisional nature of finite resources: when an isolated system undergoes change, its change in entropy will be zero or greater than zero (Negi & Anand, 1985). This concept is better stated as it applies to the zero-sum game of our economics today. Kathleen Madigan (2010), in a Wall Street Journal blog post, stated, “More spending in one area has to be financed by less purchases elsewhere” (para. 5).

Two conclusions can be drawn from observing this phenomena in health care. First, if people are spending their health care dollars on other staples, such as food, clothing, and shelter, then we should see a decline in the health of individuals that are making these choices. Second, within health care, in order to increase a focus on one population, an equal negative effect will be seen in all other population groups.

In all aspects of health care delivery, care should be taken to ensure just and equitable delivery of care regardless of socioeconomic factors, race, gender, religion, or creed. All people should have access to the minimum required care in order to maintain a healthy and productive life. We can counsel and educate our patients and clients to best health practices, but we cannot, however, force people to choose health over other facets of their lives.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. (2010). Immunization. FastStats. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities. (2007). Eliminate disparities in adult & child immunization rates. Retrieved from

Madigan, K. (2010, August 3). With wallets thin, consumers face zero-sum game. Real time economics: Economic insight and analysis from the Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Negi, A. S. & Anand, S. C. (1985). The second law of thermodynamics. A textbook of physical chemistry (pp. 241-289). Retrieved from

United Nations. (2009). The millenium development goals report: 2009. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2000, November). Healthy People 2010: Understanding and improving health (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

Cognitive Development

“Children are naturally curious” (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2010, p. 98), and that is a good thing. The authors are describing a premise of Piagets theory of childhood cognition development. Piaget’s theory is based stages of adaptive learning and identifies stages associated with key development: infancy, school age, preteen, and adolescence. According to Piaget, in infancy, cognition is very basic and focused on sensorimotor schemes that the child forms based on experiences. As the child ages, Piaget claimed, these schemes become more complex. During school age, children start to form schemes based less on function and more on appearance. Preteens, on the other hand, start to understand emotion, individualism, and relative constructs. Adolescents build upon these relative constructs adding abstract thought processes which continues to build their problem solving skills well into adulthood. Vygotsky’s theory of cultural impact on cognitive development stresses that the individual and the environment are interactive, and this interaction has an impact on learning. Scaffolding, or building on information already known, effectively identifies where instruction is needed. Coupling Piaget’s understanding of cognition development with Vygotsky’s understanding of learning environments, a focused efficiency in teaching could be attained.

As we age, though, physiologic neural processing slows and the brain atrophies (Thibault, Gant, & Landfield, 2007). These changes cause information processing to slow bidirectionally, that is as input and output, and accelerates a functional decline in brain activity as we age. This is not a reversal of development but a systematic failure of physiologic processes. The effects of aging on brain tissue directly effect cognition as neural networks of synapses breakdown. Though this process is inevitable, researchers suggest certain diets and moderate exercise that can mediate the damaging effects of aging on cognition (Bugg & Head, 2009; Gómez-Pinilla, 2008).


Bugg, J. M. & Head, D. (2009). Exercise moderates age-related atrophy of the medial temporal lobe. Neurobiology of Aging. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2009.03.008

Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 568-578. doi:10.1038/nrn2421

Kail, R. V. & Cavanaugh, J. C. (2010) Aging: A lifespan view (Laureate custom ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Thibault, O., Gant, J. C., & Landfield, P. W. (2007). Expansion of the calcium hypothesis of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease: Minding the store. Aging Cell, 6(3), 307-317. doi:10.1111/j.1474-9726.2007.00295.x

Cultural Influences on Health Disparities

Disparities in the availability, access, and delivery of health care are a great and growing concern. Some of the factors leading to disparite health include race, socioeconomic status, and gender (Chen, Martin, & Mattews, 2006). Chen et al. describes how race and socioeconomic status are major factors in the United States, based on the Healthy People 2010 data (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). According to the results of this study, our public health efforts seem to be misguided. As the researchers of this study indicate, “race and SES effects on child health are best understood in concert, rather than separately” (p. 705). The differences in race and socioeconomic status are a factor only to White and Black children when looking at prevalence rates for activity limitations and circulatory conditions, as illustrated by Chen et al. in Figures 1 and 2. These figures show that higher education actually has a small but negative effect on the health status of Asians and Hispanics while having a dramatically positive effect on Blacks. Additionally, in Figure 3, Chen et al. show a significant negative effect of education on incidence rates for acute respiratory conditions. There is no significant relationship for the same with regards to Whites or Blacks.

This study shows that there are certainly correlations between race, economic status, and differences in the health status of children in America, but these factors might only be relative. We need to understand if other factors can be identified as causative. In order to explain how Whites and Blacks share correlations while Asians and Hispanics share correlations, we might consider the length of time each population has been exposed to American culture. Whites and Blacks have been in America for over 300 years while Asians and Hispanics have migrated more recently. In addition, there is also evidence of attitude and preference differences for minorities towards health care, though the Institute of Medicine (2002) marginalizes this phenomena in their study.

As a health care provider and regardless of the causes of disparities in health status, it is advisable that I understand these causes so that I may better direct a patient’s care with a holistic understanding of the patient.


Chen, E., Martin, A. D., & Matthews, K. A. (2006). Understanding health disparities: The role of race and socioeconomic status in children’s health. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 702-708. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.048124

Institute of Medicine. (2002). Unequal treatment: What healthcare providers need to know about racial and ethnic disparities in health. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2000). Healthy people 2010: Understanding and improving health. Washington, DC: Author.