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Measuring the Toll of U.S. Health Disparities

May 18, 2023

The economic burden of health disparities in the U.S. “remains unacceptably high” and has been increasing in recent years, according to a new study released this week.

Officials said the study, published in JAMA and funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), was the first of its kind in the U.S. Researchers estimated the total economic burden of health disparities for five racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. and all 50 states.

“We have a clear call to action to address social and structural factors that negatively impact not only population health, but also economic growth,” said Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, MD, NIMHD director.

Among the key takeaways:

  • Economic burden:  In four years, the nation’s economic burden from racial and ethnic health disparities went from $320 billion to $451 billion, a 41 percent increase.
  • Metrics:  The economic burden for health disparities includes measures for excess medical care costs, lost labor market productivity, and premature deaths.
  • Total toll:  The Black population had the largest economic burden from disparities at $310 billion, with premature mortality the largest contributing factor. The Latino population had the second largest burden from disparities at $94 billion.
  • Next steps:  Policymakers need a coordinated focus on eliminating health disparities through research, legislative action, and investments that promote health equity, the report notes.
  • Quotable:  “The results of this study demonstrate that health inequity represents not just unfair and unequal health outcomes, but it also has a significant financial cost,” said Thomas LaVeist, PhD, lead author for the study.

Pennsylvania was in the middle of the pack for economic burden due to health disparities. The states with the highest burden in relation to their gross domestic product were Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and South Carolina. The states with the smallest burden were Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

The total burden of education-related health disparities was $978 billion, or $2,988 per person. 

The study and a summary of its key findings are available online.

Pennsylvania’s hospitals are committed to ensuring everyone receives high-quality, equitable health care. HAP’s Racial Health Equity Learning Action Network (RHELAN) convenes Pennsylvania hospitals and health systems to work collaboratively to identify and confront systemic inequality and structural racism in health care. Learn more about this important effort.