Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

Health Disparities

Events, Global Health, Health Costs, Health Disparities, Health Policy, Stanford News

Global health expert: Economic growth provides opportunity to close the “global health gap”

Yamey talkStanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health hosted a recent seminar for Stanford students and faculty with global health-policy expert Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH. The discussion focused on the disparity in heath care between higher- and lower-income countries and how economic growth in lower-income countries could set the stage for big improvements in global health.

During the talk, Yamey explained that millions of lives could be saved if economic gains in low- and lower-middle-income countries were invested in health care. “I can’t think of any other investment on the planet that could improve human welfare in such a huge way,” Yamey told the audience.

As described in an online story on the event, Yamey cited Rwanda – a country that rebuilt its economy and healthcare after the 1994 genocide – as an example of how this scenario could play out elsewhere:

Over the past decade, Rwanda has experienced significant drops in mortality associated with HIV, malaria and maternal death, and achieved the greatest drop in child mortality rates in recorded history. While scholars acknowledge several factors that contributed to such an extraordinary rebound, government spending on public health, the smart use of aid, and economic growth were all integral to the equation.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to bring down maternal, newborn and infectious disease deaths to universally low levels everywhere,” Yamey said. “But for that to happen, we need an aggressive scale up of existing tools and interventions, investment in new tools and a build-up of delivery systems.”

Previously: Minimum wage: More than an economic principle, a driver of healthHealth care in Haiti: “At risk of regressing”Child-mortality gap narrows in developing countries and Stanford general surgeon discusses the importance of surgery in global health care
Photo, of Gavin Yamey (left) and moderator Paul Costello, courtesy of the Center for Innovation in Global Health

Health Disparities, Health Policy, SMS Unplugged

Minimum wage: More than an economic principle, a driver of health

Minimum wage: More than an economic principle, a driver of health

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

Gallegos minimum wage sketchI admittedly don’t understand much about the intricacies of economics. But I don’t have to in order to recognize the significance behind Wal-Mart’s decision to raise the minimum pay for its lowest paid hourly employees. In the week following the company’s announcement, plenty has been written about the impact that such a move will have on the company’s success and on local economies. It goes beyond that, however. What I see is the impact that an increase in income can have on the health of working individuals making a minimum wage.

Let’s do some quick math. Current guidelines list the poverty level at $24,250 for a household of four. Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr. A full-time employee earning minimum wage therefore brings home $15,080. The working class individual, whose spouse stays home to care for their two children since childcare is unaffordable, incredibly falls $9,170 below the recognized poverty level.

This April, Wal-Mart will increase hourly pay to $9.00 and follow this with an increase to $10.00/hr in February 2016. Even then, a family of four with only one working parent will still fall more than $3,000 below the federal poverty level. Yet, the true hardship of poverty can’t be quantified so easily.

What can’t be measured is the stress that surrounds a working family’s paycheck – especially in matters of health. The difficult decision that my patient makes to skip work in order to bring their sick child to clinic, sacrificing a day’s pay, and – worse – their job security. Weighing feelings of worry for their ailing child against the stress of providing financially for the family. Or my patient who struggled through an upset stomach because she couldn’t afford both the medication and the food that she should be taking it with. Choosing health while enduring hunger.

A raise in minimum wage has direct impacts on health. It means the ability to deal with an unexpected expense without risking basic living standards like food, shelter, and transportation. It means having the luxury of buying fresh peaches instead of canned fruit. It means having a warm coat and shoes for winter. It means buying that prescription that’s been pending for months. It means securing the monthly bus pass to get you to work in the first place. For many, however, even the near 38 percent raise announced by Wal-Mart will not lift their families above the federal poverty line. In a situation where pennies and dimes add up, there will still be a significant deficit that will continue to make it improbable (read: impossible) to earn a way out of poverty.

Countless articles can be found online and in print about the need to increase minimum wage. Recently in the political sphere was a push for a $10.10 minimum wage under the Harkin-Miller Bill (Fair Minimum Wage Act). Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass the Senate. While the bill may not have represented the necessary increase, it was an acknowledgement by some of the direction we need to take- and not just for economic purposes. We must recognize that reductions in financial hardship through fair wages provide a pathway for addressing health disparities and improving health outcomes.

Moises Gallegos is a fourth-year medical student. He’ll be going into emergency medicine, and he’s interested in public-health topics such as health education, health promotion and global health.

Sketch by Moises Gallegos

Health Disparities, NIH, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Stanford professor encourages researchers to take gender into account

Stanford professor encourages researchers to take gender into account

SchiebingerAs a scientist, I’m trained to look for biases that can cause unreliable results. This is why I feel so disheartened every time I read about scientific studies that fail to take sex and gender differences into account.

These differences, and the work of Londa Schiebinger, PhD, a Stanford professor of the history of science, were the focus of a recent Stanford Report article. In the piece, Schiebinger, who directs the Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment, explains that ignoring the biological differences between males and females is a form of gender bias that can have catastrophic results:

…Experiments done in women may not have been tested first in female mice or rats — “a potentially dangerous situation,” Schiebinger said.

Recent studies have shown that 80 percent of rodent drug studies are conducted using male models. This means that not only are females left out, but that research sees nothing unique to females in the initial stages of research.

“We’re missing the opportunity to build our foundation of knowledge of just about every biological system more accurately at the outset, which should be a fundamental goal of science,” said Marcia Stefanick, research professor of medicine in the Stanford Prevention Research Center and of obstetrics and gynecology and co-director of the Gendered Innovations project.

Incorporating gender and sex differences in the design of a scientific study is not only good science, it can make the end product more effective. Shiebinger’s latest endeavor is to help scientists understand when and how to address gender biases in their research. This goal is the focus of a new initiative she’s leading with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission.

Shiebinger admits that there’s much work to do, but her efforts, and those of others in the field, are paying off. As mentioned in the piece, the EU Research and Innovation program last winter identified 137 fields of science and technology that could be improved by gender analysis. “…Eyes have been opened – and we will not return to a world that ignores gender,” Shiebinger said.

Previously: A look at NIH’s new rules for gender balance in biomedical studies, Why it’s critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments, Stanford Gendered Innovations program offers tools for improving scientific research, Study shows many heart devices receive FDA approval without adequate testing on women and Women underrepresented in heart studies
Photo by Daniel Pozo

Cancer, Health Disparities, Patient Care, Research, Stanford News

Study shows evidence-based care eliminates racial disparity in colon-cancer survival rates

Study shows evidence-based care eliminates racial disparity in colon-cancer survival rates

For the past two decades, the National Cancer Institute has documented that African-American patients have consistently had lower survival rates in colon cancer when compared with white patients. In a study published today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, lead author Kim Rhoads, MD, PhD, and colleagues from Stanford show that receiving high quality, evidence-based treatment can eliminate this racial disparity. As Rhoads explains in our press release:

Historically, we’ve taken less than a critical eye on our own health-care system in terms of how we can take the lead in addressing disparities. The big take away in this paper is that it’s treatment, not necessarily patient factors, but following evidence-based guidelines that gives all patients the best chance for survival. Our work also suggests a real opportunity to equalize these racial differences.

The evidence-based guidelines were created by the National Comprehension Cancer Network, which used clinical trials and medical research to create step-by-step, evidence-based treatments for most cancers. However, adherence to those guidelines depends on the facility and research shows that minority patients tend to receive care from hospitals that have low adherence rates.

The study found that integrated health-care organizations, which provide all of a patient’s health-care services, hospital care and insurance, delivered evidence-based care for colon cancer at a higher rate than non-integrated health-care organizations. In these facilities, all patients had higher survival rates and racial disparity for colon cancer survival disappeared.

“In integrated systems, there’s already a big push to thinking about following evidence-based guidelines, so everyone within that system is in the same mindset,” said co-author Manali Patel, MD, MPH. “It’s easier to do the right thing when you have the system-level support to do so.”

Integrated health-care systems are well suited for coordinating care among several specialists, which is another advantage for colon-cancer patients, because the treatment of colon cancer requires different types of treatments and different types of specialists, the study pointed out.

The results support the development of integrated health care models as envisioned by Affordable Care Act.

“With health-care reform, millions more patients are coming into the system, and we’re going to need to become more integrated in order to meet the demand. We’re going to need to work more closely together, decrease variations in care and standardize what we do,” Rhoads told me. “In this paper, we have a model that shows that when you do this, you get better colon cancer outcomes for everyone.”

Previously: Stanford researchers examine disparities in use of quality cancer centers, Uncommon hero: A young oncologist fights for more humane cancer care and Report shows continuing health disparities for racial and ethnic minorities

Big data, Cancer, Health Disparities, Imaging, Public Health, Women's Health

A new way of reaching women who need mammograms

A new way of reaching women who need mammograms

black Woman_receives_mammogramI’ve taken cancer screenings for granted since I’m one of those fortunate enough to have health insurance, and it didn’t occur to me that many uninsured women were going without regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer. A story today on Kaiser Health News mentions this fact and highlights a partnership that Chicago public-health officials have forged with a company named Civis. The private company includes staffers that helped with the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts, and then moved on to help find people eligible to enroll for health insurance through the Affordable Health Care Act. The company used its expertise to identify women who were in the right age group (over 40) and were uninsured in Chicago’s South Side area; those women then were then sent fliers about free screenings available to them.

The article describes some other cities using similar “big data” efforts for public-health purposes:

This project represents a distinctive step in public health outreach, said Jonathan Weiner, professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Population Health IT in Baltimore. But Chicago is not the only city investigating how population data can be used in health programs, he added, citing New York City, Baltimore and San Diego as other examples.

“It’s a growing trend that some of the techniques first developed for commercial applications are now spinning off for health applications,” he said. So far, he said, “these techniques have not been as widely applied for social good and public health,” but that appears to be changing.

The early signs say that the new effort in Chicago, which started earlier this year, is working. One hospital saw a big jump in the number of free mammograms, from 10 a month to 31, though the full impact may not be understood for a few months. It’s not “a silver bullet” as one expert cited in the story notes, but it’s a much more precise tool than most public-health outreach programs have had access to until now.

Previously: Screening could slash number of breast cancer casesDespite genetic advances, detection still key in breast cancerStudy questions effects of breast cancer screenings on survival rates and New mammogram guidelines echo ones developed by physicians group
Photo by National Cancer Institute

Chronic Disease, Health Disparities, Health Policy, Public Health, Research

Study shows former foster kids face higher risk of future health problems

Study shows former foster kids face higher risk of future health problems

2411929600_da793593b2_zAccording to a new study from the journal Pediatrics, adults who were raised in the foster-care system are more likely to have chronic-health problems than those not from foster backgrounds, even after controlling for economic security.

It has long been recognized that foster kids have high rates of health problems as children, but this study is the first to ask what happens when those kids reach adulthood. It considered cardiovascular risk factors and other chronic problems, and it compared three groups of young adults: those formerly in foster care, those from the general public with economically insecure backgrounds, and those from the general public with economically secure backgrounds. The results were graduated among the three groups, from foster care, to economic insecurity, to economic security.

In the paper, the authors explain why their findings are not surprising:

Foster youth are often exposed to poverty and many other adverse childhood experiences including abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and parental substance use, and many undergo frequent placement and school changes while in foster care. Several theories exist regarding the effects of chronic and early exposures to adversity, all of which suggest that the more stressors to which one is exposed, the higher the likelihood of a chronic physical or mental health condition later in life.

However, because these theories regarding adversity haven’t yet been adequately investigated, this study has important implications. Scientific evidence could influence policy-makers to address this problem, perhaps by continuing Medicaid access for former foster kids or granting it to those far below the poverty line, or by offering continued support from the foster-care system into young adulthood. Provisions for the first two changes were made in the Affordable Care Act, and the federal government does offer incentives for states to continue foster care until age 21, but due to technicalities and state-level laws, these benefits are not widely accessible.

Continue Reading »

Global Health, Health Costs, Health Disparities, Stanford News

Stanford undergrad works to redistribute unused medications and reduce health-care costs

Stanford undergrad works to redistribute unused medications and reduce health-care costs

1Sanchay Gupta arrived at Stanford with a strong interest in income inequality. In 2013, he spent two weeks of his summer vacation in Guatemala exploring issues of global chronic underdevelopment as part of an intensive field research internship sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. While on the trip, he shadowed Stanford doctors in ad-hoc rural clinics serving the indigenous communities and got a firsthand look at the country’s rural health-care system. He also interviewed patients about how their health status affected their family’s welfare while conducting field research.

Among the patients he interviewed was a father of nine children who made his living carrying firewood. One day the man injured himself carrying a particularly heavy load and was declared unfit for work. Seemingly overnight, the family income drastically fell below $3 a day and the father could no longer afford to see a doctor for treatment. But until he received proper medical care, there was no way that he could recover from his injury and resume supporting his family.

“It was during my time in these community settings that I witnessed how disparities in access to medical care can perpetuate inequality,” said Gupta, who was recently named one of the “15 incredibly impressive students at Stanford” by Business Insider. “As a result, I became really interested in how solving issues of inequality could break the cyclical theme of poverty.”

At the same time, Gupta was  fostering a vested interest in the fate of America’s health-care system. He had taken a few courses on U.S. health policy and strategies for health-care delivery innovation, and the experiences sparked a desire to get involved in efforts to eliminate costly inefficiencies within the health-care sector.

In looking for opportunities to get involved in helping reduce inefficiencies in health care, he learned about Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine (SIRUM), a non-profit launched by Stanford students that engages with health-facility donors, converting their regulated medicine destruction process into medicine donation.

Nearly one-third of patients don’t fill first-time prescriptions and many say concerns about costs are a key reason for their non-compliance. At the same time, an estimated $5 billion of unused and unexpired prescriptions drugs are destroyed in the United States annually. To address these problems, SIRUM has developed an online platform that allows medical facilities, manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies to donate unused drugs instead of destroying them.

Continue Reading »

Health Disparities, Medicine X, Stanford News, Technology

Countdown to Medicine X: How to engage with the "no smartphone" patient

Countdown to Medicine X: How to engage with the "no smartphone" patient

When I saw the full agenda of the upcoming Stanford Medicine X conference, the name of one of the panels – “The ‘No Smartphone’ Patient” –  jumped out at me. The conference is focused on the ways new technology intersects with health care, and it’s heavily attended by researchers, health-care innovators, and patients who strike me as likely to never leave the house without their smartphone or tablet. The topic seemed a curious thing for the organizers to offer.

Once I read the full description of the Sept. 5 talk, though, it made complete sense. Part of Medicine X’s aim has always been to empower patients to be proactive in their care and to contribute to the discussion on how technology can be used to improve human health. So if a significant chunk of the population is low-income and/or has limited access to health-enhancing technologies, it would be prudent for stakeholders to determine how to improve that access and how, exactly, to give those so-called “no smartphone” patients a voice.

Intrigued by the topic and wanting a preview of the discussion, I reached out to panelist Veenu Aulakh, executive director of the Center for Care Innovation (CCI), which develops patient-engagement innovations and provides support to the state’s safety-net providers (community health centers, public hospitals, and public health clinics). After noting that almost one-third of California’s population is considered underserved and vulnerable, Aulakh talked with me about what’s been done for underserved populations in recent years, how she believes the digital divide among various populations is shrinking, and what those attending “The ‘No Smartphone’ Patient” panel can expect to learn.

At Medicine X, you’ll be discussing some of the cultural, social, and economic barriers that prevent certain patients from fully engaging with health-enhancing technologies. Can you provide a hint of what those things might be?

There are a number of barriers for patients to fully engage with health-enhancing technologies. The solutions that are created today are often not built for low-literacy, non-English speaking patients. Having solutions in Spanish and written at less than a 4th grade reading level are critical for getting solutions adopted. In addition, many of these technologies are often introduced to patients via their health-care providers, and the solutions are not created at a price point that either safety net health systems or patients can afford. Also, the solutions need to be more reflective of the realities of patients lives – folks are extremely busy and don’t have a lot of time to hand-enter data or engage with technologies that don’t provide immediate value. If we’re going to get patients (and their providers) to use effective technologies, we need to make sure that they can see immediate benefits if they are to use these technologies regularly. Lastly, the smartphone penetration rate in low-income populations still isn’t at a level where it would be useful for most safety net providers to broadly offer smartphone solutions to their patients. As this changes, the adoption rate of health apps and similar technologies may rise as well.

Do you foresee a time when patients who currently face such barriers can become part of the e-patient movement?

I think there are already many vulnerable and underserved people who would consider themselves part of the e-patient movement. Health centers are now beginning to e-mail with patients, inviting them to participate in texting programs and starting to roll out other e-offerings. However, for more patients to join the e-patient movement, we need to reduce the barriers. As more patients move to smartphones, I believe we’ll see a shrinking of the digital divide. According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014, 47 percent of low-income people had smartphones. As this number continues to increase, this will help low-income patients be active e-patients (assuming language, literacy and cost issues are addressed).

CCI works to bring various health-enhancing technologies to California’s low-income patients. What are some of the patient-engagement techniques you’ve seen delivered in recent years?

We’ve seen everything from building strong patient and family advisory groups who give input to clinics on how to better design care systems that are truly patient-centered, to launching efforts to hear from the patients about their needs through surveys, focus groups and ethnographic research. Many clinics are also starting to implement texting programs to follow up with patients between visits with appointment reminders, or send education reminders for patients with chronic diseases. They’re also starting to use remote monitoring devices like home blood pressure and blood glucose monitoring. The funding environment (and the limited resources of both clinics and patients) have hampered wide-spread adoption of these types of solutions, but clinics definitely see the value in engaging patients – with both high- and low-tech solutions.

How have your group and other safety-net providers involved patients in developing these techniques?

Many health centers have developed patient and family advisory groups to provide feedback to design these programs. Other clinics are beginning to use the principles of design thinking to better understand the needs of their patients and going beyond the traditional patient experience surveys to hear the real voice of their patients. However, much more work needs to be done to make this the standard of care.

Continue Reading »

Health Disparities, Men's Health, Public Health, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Why it’s critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments

Why it's critical to study the impact of gender differences on diseases and treatments

man_womanWhen it comes to diagnosing disease and choosing a course of treatment, gender is a significant factor. In a Stanford BeWell Q&A, Marcia Stefanick, PhD, a professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and co-director of the Stanford Women & Sex Differences in Medicine Center, discusses why gender medicine research benefits both sexes and why physicians need to do a better job of taking sex difference into consideration when make medical decisions.

Below Stefanick explains why a lack of understanding about the different clinical manifestations of prevalent diseases in women and men can lead to health disparities:

…Because we may have primarily studied a particular disease in only one of the sexes, usually males (and most basic research is done in male rodents), the resulting treatments are most often based on that one sex’s physiology. Such treatments in the other sex might not be appropriate. One example is sleep medication. Ambien is the prescription medicine recently featured on the TV show, 60 Minutes. Reporters found out that women were getting twice the dose they should because they had been given the men’s doses; consequently, the women were falling asleep at the wheel and having accidents. Physicians had not taken into account that women are smaller and their livers’ metabolize drugs differently than do men’s. Some women have responded by reducing their own medication dosages, and yet that practice of self-adjusting is not the safest way to proceed, either.

Previously: A call to advance research on women’s health issues, Exploring sex differences in the brain and Women underrepresented in heart studies
Photo by Mary Anne Enriquez

Health Disparities, Health Policy

A quiz on the social determinants of health

Given the topic of today’s SMS-Unplugged entry, during which Moises Humberto Gallegos discusses how things like housing insecurity and financial hardship can contribute to poor health, I was interested to come across this Covering Health quiz on the social determinants of health. Writer Joe Rojas-Burke asks 10 true-or-false questions, and I think some of the answers may surprise you. For example:

Expanding health insurance coverage and access to medical care (the focus of the federal Affordable Care Act) is unlikely to reverse the health disparities caused by the social determinants of health.

TRUE: In countries that established universal health coverage decades ago, lower social status still correlates with worse health and shorter lives. The research on social determinants suggests that progress is likely to require broader social changes, such as improving access to education, boosting economic opportunity and making disadvantaged neighborhoods safer and and more vital.

And:

Food deserts – neighborhoods with few or no grocery stores selling fresh, affordable produce – are a well-defined root cause of obesity and other health problems in disadvantaged communities.

FALSE: There is evidence showing that low-income and minority Americans are more likely to live in food deserts. But it’s not at all clear to what extent the lack of supermarkets and grocery stores contributes to obesity or other health outcomes.

Previously: In medicine, showing empathy isn’t enough, Should the lack of access to good food be blamed for America’s poor eating habits? and Hopkins researchers find place, rather than race, may be greater determinant of health

Stanford Medicine Resources: