Groundbreaking report sheds light on health care disparities for black Alaskans

A sweeping new report finds that black Alaskans suffer higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, certain cancers, kidney failure and more severe illness from COVID-19 than residents of other races.

The report’s findings, released by the University of Alaska School of Social Work at Anchorage, are based on nearly 700 survey responses from black Alaskans in the state, as well as focus groups and publicly available federal and state health data.

The data reflect national trends that have long revealed persistent health care disparities in the United States based on race, among other factors. Social determinants of health — such as poverty, unequal access to health care, lack of education, stigma and racism — are linked to health disparities, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Along with reporting higher rates of certain health problems, many black Alaskans who responded to the survey also said they experienced bias or discrimination from medical professionals.

The Alaska Black Caucus, a community-based advocacy group, commissioned the report to help identify areas that can be targeted to improve the health of black Alaskans, who make up just over 3 percent of the state’s population but for whom limited health data exists.

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The report is the first of its kind to focus specifically on black Alaskans, according to Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus. It was unveiled last week at a public presentation held at UAA.

“The other estimates don’t really include us,” Hodge Growden said at the event last week. “And now we have a black health assessment. This is amazing.”

A number of audience members described firsthand experiences with doctors or nurses who seemed dismissive of their health concerns, made incorrect assumptions, or otherwise appeared biased in the way they provided care.

Ty Roberts, a doula from Anchorage, said she thinks representation in health care matters — that being cared for by a medical professional who looks like you can be an affirming and empowering experience for many of the black women she works with.

“I always get the comment, ‘I didn’t know there was someone like me who could help me,'” Roberts said. “And so now I realize how much performance matters, just to be in a place where there’s no implicit bias.”

The report found that black Alaskans have a higher likelihood of dying from cancer, specifically of the female reproductive system, than other races and ethnicities. Infant mortality rates due to complications while the baby is developing or complications during labor or delivery are also highest for black Alaskans compared to all other races.

It found that overall, black people suffer disproportionately more from kidney failure – up to three times more than white people – and are more likely to die at a younger age.

They were also 20 times more likely to report experiencing psychological distress, “and yet were over 50% less likely to receive mental health counseling or treatment,” the report said.

And although 83 percent of respondents said they had some form of health insurance, more than half also said the cost was prohibitive to get the care they needed or that no appointments were available.

Much of the data presented in the report reflects national trends and differences. Data from the CDC, for example, shows that maternal mortality among black women in the US is more than twice that of white women. Black men have higher rates of high blood pressure than white men. And the number of black Americans who are uninsured is much higher than that of white Americans, nearly 15% compared to about 9%.

Researchers involved in the Alaska report say their goal is to inform and help find potential solutions to health challenges facing the black community.

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They noted an existing lack of race-related health data focused on Alaska — especially data on COVID-19 — that made it difficult to assess trends. In Alaska’s coronavirus data, nearly a third of all cases were reported as race of unknown race or multiple races, making it difficult to determine the effect of the virus on specific populations.

That absence was one reason the researchers wanted more data, said Amana Mbise, an assistant professor in the UAA School of Social Work.

The report found that “Black/African-Americans experience more serious and severe (COVID-19) illness and death than their white counterparts” in Alaska.

Mbise also pointed to more encouraging data, including the fact that the suicide rate for Alaska’s black community is lower than rates for other races.

It’s important to try to understand why there are higher rates of reported mental health problems but lower rates of suicide — what protective factors exist and how to continue to strengthen those support networks, he said. “We want to understand not only the needs, but also the strengths.”

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