“Health disparities” refers to unequal health outcomes that exist between people of different class and racial backgrounds.
One big example of health disparities in St. Louis is the difference in survival rates for cancers that are largely preventable with screening and other medical interventions. In St. Louis city, the death rate from colorectal cancer is higher than the overall colorectal cancer death rates in Missouri and the U.S. This is largely because of late detection and lack of access to preventive screenings and treatment for certain populations in the city. While screening and treatment for colorectal cancer has greatly improved over the past 35 years—the five-year survival rate of this cancer is now 90% when detected early—in that same time, disparities in deaths due to the disease have increased along lines of race, ethnicity, insurance, income and formal education. This means that a significant cause of this disparity is that certain groups of people simply aren’t getting screened.
This could be due to a number of reasons, from cost to lack of awareness or mistrust in medical care providers. The fight against health disparities involves addressing each one of these reasons. Luckily, one strategy to fight health disparities has proven effective at addressing a number of barriers to preventive screening and treatment: community engagement.
Community engagement works by ensuring that health-related programs and policies reflect the values and meet the needs of the community. Community engagement brings together resources, individuals and institutions to incorporate community perspectives and insights into health programs.
So what exactly can you as an individual do to stem the tide of growing health inequality?
- Get involved – There are already many community, non-profit and faith-based organizations that are working to spread the word on disease prevention, advocating for greater access to healthcare and resources for their community and helping to educate community members to find reliable health information. As an individual, you can volunteer your time at or otherwise participate in one of these organizations.
- Educate yourself and others – You can also seek out educational resources at the library, online or at local literacy programs to learn more about health and wellness. This knowledge not only helps you protect yourself, it also helps you be a stronger advocate and leader for those in your community. As a start, you can find more information on Cancer.gov.
- Join a research study – Community engagement in academic research, like clinical trials and surveys, can also contribute to a more nuanced understanding of health problems in a specific community, increasing the relevance of problems researchers examine, improving the quality and outcomes of health promotion activities, disease prevention initiatives and research studies.
It is possible to lower health disparities in our region, so find out today what you can do to help!
Written by: Bettina Drake, PhD, MPH, a cancer researcher at Washington University School of Medicine and Siteman Cancer Center. Her research interests address reducing disparities in cancer by focusing on cancer prevention strategies through nutritional and community-based approaches. Dr. Drake also co-leads the Prostate Cancer Community Partnership, a community partnership of the Program for the Elimination of Cancer Disparities (PECaD), and is a founding member of the Prostate Cancer Coalition. Both community organizations seek to reduce prostate cancer disparities in the region and nation.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)