AHRQ Keeps Working To Reduce Health Disparities

By Francis Chesley, M.D., Acting Deputy Director of AHRQ & Director of the Office of Extramural Research, Education, and Priority Populations
Twitter: @AHRQNews

Helping to reduce disparities in health care has long been a pillar of AHRQ’s mission. The Agency continues its commitment to exploring how variations in care by income, geography, race, ethnicity, and other factors contribute to disparities in care delivery and health and health care outcomes.

Recently, I was pleased to highlight three important ways AHRQ is addressing health disparities, when I spoke at the Office of Minority Health’s observance of National Minority Health Month.

Producing and Disseminating Data
First, AHRQ’s National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report (QDR) compiles more than 250 measures of quality and disparities to track and evaluate the performance of the U.S. health system. The report helps policymakers, public health advocates, health system leaders, and others prioritize efforts to improve care for conditions prevalent among vulnerable populations.

Later this summer, AHRQ will release an updated QDR, as well as State Snapshots that provide State-specific data on quality performance. New data in those publications will build on themes from the 2016 QDR report:

  • The overall quality of health care in the United States has continued to improve from 2000 to 2015
  • Some of the most notable gains occurred in patient safety
  • Significant improvements were seen in “person-centered care,” which is how well patients are directly involved in decisions about their care

However, despite gains, disparities in notable areas persist. For instance, while disparities in quality and access to care among Blacks and Hispanics declined in about 20 percent of measures, most disparities have not changed significantly for racial and ethnic groups.

While the QDR provides an annual, comprehensive report on quality, other AHRQ resources offer regular data snapshots that provide important insights on disparities for both adults and children and suggest areas for improvement.

  • A statistical brief from the Agency’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, for example, found that Hispanic and African-American children were more likely than White children to lack a usual source of care.
  • An analysis from AHRQ’s Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project found that rates of preeclampsia and eclampsia—disorders that can cause high blood pressure, kidney and liver problems, or seizures during pregnancy—are 60 percent higher for Black women than for White women.

Developing Tools
Second, to reduce health disparities, AHRQ creates tools that help guide health systems and health professionals in their efforts to provide high-quality care for all patients.

Many Americans struggle to understand complex health information. Addressing health literacy is an important aspect of reducing disparities as it can impact both use of health care services and resulting health outcomes. AHRQ has created a number of health literacy resources that can help reduce health disparities by enhancing support for health care professionals and patients by simplifying communication and making health care organizations easier to navigate.

Another useful tool to support better communication is our Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS®) surveys, which ask patients about their experiences communicating with their providers about health information, including the use of interpreters for those who have limited English proficiency. Disparities in care must be identified before they can be addressed.

The importance of optimizing communication has remained a key focus as we continue to adapt our TeamSTEPPS® program, which helps hospitals and medical offices train staff in teamwork skills to improve patient safety. In a recent update to our TeamSTEPPS curricula, we added the TeamSTEPPS Limited English Proficiency training module. This additional training helps professionals increase their awareness of patients who have difficulty communicating in English and provides tools to reduce the language barriers.

Funding New Research
Third, AHRQ invests in research and evidence focused on better understanding how to remove barriers to care and make health care safer for all our patients. Among recent research findings:

  • AHRQ-funded researchers at the University of Chicago, mindful of the significant disparities among patients in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community, concluded that clinician training on the social context and health care needs of racial/ethnic minority LGBTQ patients is essential to building rapport and providing a safe environment to provide effective care.
  • Columbia University researchers, who developed and tested a mobile health application called mVIP, found the app supported self-care and significantly improved symptoms among people living with HIV/AIDS. These results suggest the use of mobile technologies can bridge disparities in health care access and outcomes.

The theme for this year’s National Minority Health Month is Partnering for Health Equity. This theme certainly resonates with us. AHRQ’s mission not only is to produce evidence to make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable, and affordable, but also to work within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and with other partners to make sure the evidence is understood and used.

We still have a long way to go to eliminate all disparities in health and health care services for minority populations. But AHRQ has made a firm commitment to continue to invest in data, tools, and research that highlight disparities and look for ways to reduce them.

This article was originally published on AHRQ Views Blog and is republished here with permission.