NIH-based study finds racial, ethnic disparities in pediatric acute asthma care

NIH-based study finds racial, ethnic disparities in pediatric acute asthma care

BCN Staff – April 17, 2022 – As the Biden administration has committed to addressing racism as an obstacle to health equity, a new study backed by the National Institutes of Health finds that Black children with asthma are less likely to get initial care for breathing episodes but often end up at the emergency room when those problems get worse.

According to a new, nationwide study backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Black children with asthma accessed community health centers (CHCs) less than white children, while Latino children were more likely to visit CHCs for acute, chronic, and preventive care overall.

The pattern of low clinic utilization by Black children was accompanied by more frequent emergency department visits compared to the other groups. The difference in utilization at the CHC level suggests there are other factors beyond affordability influencing disparities in health care utilization. The study, published in Annals of Family Medicine, was largely supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of NIH.

The seven-year observational study conducted across 18 states using electronic health record data of 41,276 children with asthma found 54% of Black children had fewer than two visits annually, while for white and Spanish-preferring Latino children, it was 49.2% and 30.1%, respectively. The minimum standard of care for children with asthma is two visits annually. The researchers compared acute asthma care visits within CHCs, and the equivalent use within hospital emergency departments by race, ethnicity, and language.

Led by researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, the study is the first to demonstrate that patterns of clinic and emergency department acute-care utilization differ for Black and Spanish-preferring Latino children when compared to white children. Previous studies have documented disparities in asthma-related emergency department use. However, none have demonstrated different long-term patterns by race, ethnicity, and language across various acute care settings (clinic, emergency department, inpatient) accounting for health status, social determinants of health and routine primary care.

Additionally, the researchers endeavored to understand how acute care use may reflect social factors across various domains and levels of influence, including aspects of poverty, the experience of cultural affinity in CHCs, and differing effects of segregation and social deprivation. Those and other factors are outlined in NIMHD’s research framework.  

Researchers found that most children in the study experienced a wealth gap, but Black children did so more often than others. Seven in 10 (73%) lived in households that were below 138% of the federal poverty level, compared to 54% to 58% in white and Latino children. These children may have been affected by greater financial instability, the inability of guardians to take work leave or fill prescriptions leading to lower primary care usage, and increased exacerbations that could require emergency care. Eliminating the wealth gap experienced by many Black Americans may improve asthma outcomes for this population.

CHCs in this study may be more tailored to care for Latino populations by having providers/staff that may be of Latino origin as well as language services that provide some cultural affinity not experienced by the Black community utilizing these same clinics. 

While other research has shown that in equally segregated and socially deprived neighborhoods, immigrants have better health outcomes (including higher primary care utilization) than non-immigrant Black people do. This contrast suggests that the effects of long-term structural racism may have influenced the findings in this study.

“The findings from this research underscore the multi-faceted nature of minority health and health disparities. There are multiple social factors and levels of influence that can impact health behavior within a population with the same diagnosis, and these must be explored to better understand and address health disparities,” said NIMHD Director Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D.

“Our discovery suggests that the CHC delivery model may be more effective at mitigating disparities in some situations and groups than others. Future research can investigate which features of the CHC delivery approach can be improved or expanded to reach all populations in need of care,” said Jorge Kaufmann, ND, M.S, of the Department of Family Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, lead author on the study.

The study was conducted with the Accelerating Data Value Across a National Community Health Center Network (ADVANCE) Clinical Research Network (CRN). The ADVANCE network is led by OCHIN in partnership with Health Choice Network, Fenway Health, Oregon Health & Science University, and the Robert Graham Center.

NIMHD leads scientific research to improve minority health and eliminate health disparities by conducting and supporting research; planning, reviewing, coordinating, and evaluating all minority health and health disparities research at NIH; promoting and supporting the training of a diverse research workforce; translating and disseminating research information; and fostering collaborations and partnerships.

Racism as serious public health threat

The new NIH study on Black children and acute asthma comes exactly a year after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Michelle Walensky declared that racism is a serious public health threat. Walensky’s statement was made against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said “illuminated inequities that have existed for generations and revealed for all of America a known, but often unaddressed, epidemic impacting public health: racism.”

What we know is this: racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans,” continued Walensky. “As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation. Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community. These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color.”

The CDC, NIH and NIMHD are all agencies or divisions within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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