Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the rate of new cases of diabetes in the United States declined by about 20 percent from 2008 to 2014. This represents the first sustained decrease in diagnosis since the disease emerged as a major threat to public health over the course of the past two decades. But the fight is far from over, especially for communities of color.
While the CDC report is good news regarding an overall decline in diabetes rates, it did not acknowledge a significant change in prevalence among the African-American community, which continues to be far more vulnerable to the disease than other racial and ethnic groups.
Consider the data: Black adults are about twice as likely to have diagnosed diabetes as non-Hispanic White adults. They are also twice as likely to die from the disease. What’s more, African-Americans are more than three times as likely to suffer from health complications related to diabetes, such as lower-limb amputation and kidney failure.
It’s clear that the African-American community is shouldering an unequal burden when it comes to diabetes treatment, prevention, research and education. And so the CDC’s announcement—while welcome news—does not signal that the fight against the disease is over. There is more work to do to not only overcome the diabetes epidemic, but also eliminate the healthcare disparities that disproportionately plague our community.
To do that, we must redouble our efforts to create a culture of health in African-American communities—one that removes the stigma of seeking care and helps our neighbors and family members access the opportunities provided under the Affordable Care Act. Healthcare.gov is now available for the open enrollment period through January 31, 2016, and taking advantage of the options available today is the first step our community can take to reclaim Black health and wellness.
But coverage alone isn’t enough to guarantee better health outcomes for African-Americans. Healthcare providers have a responsibility to deliver inclusive, quality care that considers the needs of the whole patient. That means providing patients with relevant, reliable information that empowers and engages them to make choices for a healthier life.
The truth is that all healthcare providers should strive to provide an environment where no one is excluded—where everyone has access to compassionate, personalized care and the opportunity for better health regardless of their struggles or station in life. And that’s the right model for all providers. Because we must get to know our patients on an individual, holistic level—not prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach—if we intend to truly improve their health outcomes.
Finally, our policymakers, civic leaders and all who have a stake in the health of our community must address the social determinants that influence and widen the diabetes equity gap. For years, we’ve known that diabetes can be prevented and managed with healthy lifestyle changes such as exercise and good nutrition. But it’s difficult to go for a run around the block when you live in a high-crime neighborhood. It’s challenging to find fresh fruits and vegetables when you live in a food desert. We must marshal our communities around the policies that affect our environment’s ability to support a culture of health and wellness.
Diabetes has been—and will continue to be—a major public health issue in the U.S. We’re making progress in the fight against the disease, but we need to do more to address the disparities felt by the African-American population. With a focused effort from members of the Black community, policymakers, civic leaders and healthcare providers to create a culture of health, deliver compassionate, personalized care and advance the policies that make healthy lifestyles viable, I am confident we can curb the diabetes epidemic for good, for everyone.
Patricia A. Maryland, Dr.PH, is the President of Healthcare Operations and Chief Operating Officer for Ascension Health.