It is common knowledge that African Americans are not only at a disproportionately greater risk for disease, but we also tend to die at higher rates than those in the general population. African American men, for example, have a 20% higher incidence rate and a 40% higher death rate from all cancers combined than white men. And blacks have almost twice the risk of first-ever stroke compared with whites. In the past, it was believed that such disparities were impacted by economics — especially since poor and uninsured blacks are often unable to afford proper healthcare. A report by the Institute of Medicine in March 2002, however, sheds new light on these statistics. The study found that even with comparable income and health insurance, African Americans received lower quality care in the treatment of major diseases.
And while there are racial, cultural, and historical factors that affect these numbers, it is important that African Americans respond to health concerns more proactively — if not aggressively. “Express your concerns,” states Dr. Robert Williams, an associate professor at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “Too many times black folks have been intimidated by the physician, or don’t have one with whom they have developed a relationship,” he explains. He says that our efforts to obtain treatment are reactionary, the result of a crisis. “You have to be an advocate for your healthcare,” adds Dr. Lewis Wyatt Jr., who is an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UCLA Medical Center. Being informed is the first step toward accessing better health services. This health package will help move you toward personal accountability.
Let’s Get (A) Physical
Darryl Adams visited his doctor annually. But when he was confronted with two personal tragedies, he became more proactive in monitoring his health.
“I [recently] lost a close friend to lung cancer. And my father was recently diagnosed with the disease,” says the 37-year-old operations manager for Verizon in Albany, New York. In both cases, the cancer wasn’t detected until chest x-rays were administered. Adams has since stepped up his physical exams to twice a year, requesting chest x-rays, an EKG, and a stress test if he senses anything unusual. He realized that routine exams don’t necessarily find everything.
“When you go to a doctor’s office, you have to be an advocate for your healthcare,” reiterates Los Angeles-based gynecologist Dr. Lewis Wyatt. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” Your doctor will determine testing and frequency by your age, health habits, employment (because of stress levels), and personal and family medical history. Wyatt suggests annual metabolic screening, which includes a complete blood count, urinalysis, and, for those who are sexually active, testing for STDs. Additional testing will be driven by symptoms, age, and illness.