September 21, 2005

From Tim Porter: First some data:

  • About
    17.5 percent of American adults don’t have health insurance. If you’re
    Hispanic, though, the number is 35 percent; African American, 22.8
    percent; white, only 12.7 percent.
  • The
    life expectancy of an American male is 73.4 years. But if you are a black
    man in Washington, D.C., it’s only 57.9 years – less time alive than in
    Ghana, Bangladesh or Bolivia.
  • American
    minorities less likely than whites to be treated well for heart disease, receive
    kidney dialysis or transplants or get sophisticated HIV treatment. They
    are, however, more likely than whites to receive “certain less-desirable
    procedures,” such as having a leg amputated for diabetes.

Does this racial disparity in health care sound like news?
Certainly it does – and the U.S. press has been writing about it. A search of
Lexis-Nexis on “health care and racial disparity” produces hundreds of
newspaper stories, including many referring to the report from which the above
information came, of “Unequal Treatment,” a 2002 study by the
Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences.

Newspapers do some of their best work on health care issues
(read this L.A. Times series on
King/Drew Medical Center), but they also do some of
their shallowest on the same subject, writing routine report stories or
focusing on heart-tugging personal stories instead of larger, more
difficult issues.

During a day of seminars devoted to race and health care,
IJJ’s racial justice fellows heard Brian Smedley, an author of the Institute of
Medicine study, describe how minority Americans, even those with private health
insurance, consistently receive a lower standard of health care than their
white counterparts. The culprits are a combination of culture, economics and
various forms of bias – much of it unconscience and manifested in lower
expectations by medical professionals for their minority patients.

As an issue, health care and its unequal access is complex,
deep-rooted and, ultimately, very personal, especially to the poor. It can also
be daunting to cover for news organizations that are feeling resource-squeezed
or feel pressure to report on matters that are more demographically targeted to
capture new readers, growing suburbs, for example. Poverty, let’s admit it, is
a bit out fashion as a beat compared to a couple of decades ago.

What can journalists do, especially those working on
mid-size or smaller newspapers, to tell this story better? Here are a few
stories that can be reported in any community:

  • Emergency
    room use.
    The poor, the uninsured, use hospital emergency rooms as their
    primary care center. Local residents of all economic brackets foot the
    bill. What’s the story in your community. Here’s an example from National
    Public Radio in Minneapolis.
  • The
    private sector
    is collecting racial and ethnic data on medical treatment
    with more precision than the government, says Smedley. What do insurers
    like Aetna know about your community that you don’t?
  • Morbidity
    The Centers for Disease Control is a good place to start.
  • Translation
    Medical facilities that receive federal money – and that’s
    nearly every one – must provide translation services for their patients.
    Do they? What is their quality? Who are the contractors? Are hospitals,
    for example, using the bilingual children of immigrants to translate?

Later in the day, filmmaker Larry Adelman, producer of the
PBS series “Race – The Power of an Illusion,” urged journalists to focus more
on the larger, systemic issue of health-care disparity and less on the
one-person story. You “spend too much time looking at what individuals can do
to improve their health,” he said. You “need to break out of those individual

“The message” of the day from the health care scientists,
said Steve Montiel, director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism, “is to
deal with complexity, to not back away from it, to not simplify.”

Tim Porter is an editor and writer.

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Tim Porter is an editor and writer with an extensive background in print and web journalism. Porter is associate director of Tomorrows Workforce, a newsroom…

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