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Oct 22, 2015

African-American Veterans Healthier Than White Counterparts

Analysis of VA data stands in contrast to health disparities in the general U.S. population.

Although African-Americans tend to experience worse health outcomes than whites, there’s one major exception, based on a recent analysis of mortality risk among patients belonging to the U.S. Veterans Health Administration.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study compared key health outcomes of African-American vs. white veterans. Many studies have shown that African-Americans have greater risk of heart disease and death compared to whites. While there’s no single explanation for health disparities, access to health care is plays a major role. African-Americans are more likely to face barriers to health care and their health suffers as a result.

To learn more about the relationship between outcomes and access to care, researchers analyzed health records of more than 3 million patients receiving care from the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. The Veterans Health Administration is an integrated health care system with over 1,700 sites that serve nearly 9 million veterans each year. Using data from this large health system, researchers hoped to learn more about outcomes in African-Americans and whites by eliminating differences in access to care.

In total, researchers analyzed health records of nearly 550,000 African-American and 2.5 million white patients in the Veterans Health Administration. Since African-Americans with kidney disease tend to have better outcomes than their white counterparts, researchers only included patients free of kidney disease in their study.

After analysis, researchers found that African-American veterans had 37% lower risk of heart disease and 24% lower risk of death than white veterans. In comparison, analysis of the general U.S. population shows that African-Americans have 42% higher risk of death than whites.

So what do these results mean? According to experts, it’s complicated. This analysis included a very specific group of patients belonging to the U.S. Veterans Health Administration. Although African-Americans had lower risk of mortality than whites in this study, findings can’t be applied to the entire U.S. population because this certainly isn’t the case for non-veteran populations.

Researchers also point out that there may be a number of explanations for the study findings. It’s possible that white veterans tend to be less healthy than whites in the general U.S. population. It’s also possible that improvements in the VA health care system have helped improve outcomes for African-Americans. So while the study raises many interesting questions, additional research is needed to better understand the many factors that influence health disparities in minorities.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What are health disparities?
  • Health disparities refer to differences in health outcomes or burdens of disease between groups of people. Health disparities can exist between different populations of race, sex, income, or even geographic location. In health care, the goal is to eliminate these differences so all individuals have the same ability to achieve good health.
  • Am I at risk for heart disease?
  • To estimate a patient’s risk for heart disease, doctors take into account a number of factors such as age, gender, blood pressure, cholesterol, and family history. Using this information, doctors can estimate whether a patient is considered to be at low, medium or high risk for heart disease. Online tools are also available to help patients estimate their risk for heart disease.

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