April is National Minority Health Month.  If you’re an employer or a manager, this month should be very important to you.  Why?   For one, it’s highly relevant to your employees.  But that’s not all.  It’s also relevant to the management of your healthcare expenditures.

This year, the Federal government is using Minority Health Month to address the sizeable challenge of encouraging COVID-19 vaccination adoption and access among minority groups.  But it’s also a time to raise awareness about the broader health disparities that affect racial and ethic minorities groups in the US.  It’s calling attention to the fact that racial and ethic disparities extend to health and mental health, not just economic, educational, and social equality.  It’s a month that calls for actions, not just words to address these disparities.  These actions need to include better health education and better and earlier detection of disease and behavioral health conditions, before they become more difficult, costlier to successfully treat, and more devastating to the sufferer.

There is solid evidence that the systemic discrimination that many businesses have become increasingly aware of recently has consequences that undermine the physical and mental health of minorities. (See my previous blog post, Systemic Discrimination and Health Disparities in the US).  However, sometimes ways to address this issue are overlooked by employers.  In fact, there are ways business leaders can be engaged with this issue to assist their workforces, communities, and bottom lines. This is because in our American system of health care employers largely pay the private sector health care bill.  They have influence as a result of being the ultimate purchaser, but often ignore this opportunity.

Some Facts About Minority Health in the US

  • It is projected that by 2050, over 52% of the population will be comprised of people of color. As recently as 2019, the majority of newly hired employees between ages 25-54 were minorities, with 17.5% being of the growing Latin community. These projections speak to the importance of human resources, business managers and C-Suite leaders mastering cultural competency in order to lead a thriving work organization today and in the future.
  • Research continues to highlight how racial, ethnic, environmental, and socioeconomic inequalities create poor health outcomes for minorities, who statistically suffer higher rates of disease and death in comparison to whites. An often overlooked factor is that minority employees receiving company sponsored health insurance face different challenges than whites. Hispanics, Blacks, and American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer inequalities in accessing and utilizing health care services than their white counterparts. Further, many minorities may decide to go without care due to concerns of poorer quality of treatment, especially for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.
  • Black women experience the highest death rates from heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, and pregnancy of any racial and ethnic group. More noteworthy, black women make up 53 percent of the black labor force and are more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance. Unfortunately, many Black women do not receive appropriate diagnostic and treatment services even when they are insured. A recent study of Black people with heart disease found that while insured, black women were 40% less likely to be recommended to cardiac treatments compared to whites. When chronic diseases are not well managed or referred to specialists, patients are more at risk for hospitalizations.
  • The financial impact on businesses due to these disparities has been well studied. Researchers estimate that $42 billion is lost in productivity per year due to premature deaths that could have been avoided by receiving appropriate diagnostic and preventive treatment interventions. Given disparities in health status, this places minority employees at greater risk of absenteeism, accidents, and disability due to health-related issues. Employers are then left with recruitment and training costs to replace workers.  This issue is already acute in some industries (such as transportation, healthcare, and law enforcement) and will heat up in the coming months as the economy rebounds post-pandemic and millions of Baby Boomers retire from the workforce.

How Can Employers Help Improve Minority Health?

Many employers view their stake in this matter of health as only ensuring equal access to employer-sponsored health care benefits regardless of one’s race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or gender. And of course, equal access to employer-sponsored wellness and prevention services, like Employee Assistance Programs. Well-intended leaders may not be aware of one resource they can employ to act on improving the health of their minority employees and of their community. There is more they can do. Let me explain.

Many employers have already established diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at their workplace.  Few seem to have focused these efforts on how their current health benefit offerings are helping to reduce health disparities for people of color. Further, many employers have focused on providing equal access to health insurance for all their employees but have not ensured that their employees are receiving equitable treatment for their health conditions. Here are 5 actions you can take now to improve minority employees’ health.

  1. Obtain and review your health plan’s access data. Are primary care and specialists located conveniently to areas where minority populations live and work? A large network of providers is meaningless unless it’s accessible. Not all conditions can be assessed and treated via telehealth and not all people trust telehealth as a treatment channel.
  2. Review the health care provider network diversity in your plan(s). Minorities are better served by culturally competent providers and they are more likely to be competent when the providers are members of the same racial and ethnic groups.  Advocate that your health plan’s network reflects the diversity of your workforce and your community where they live, play, and work.
  3. Ask your health care plan, TPA, or broker about the extent and frequency of cultural competency education obtained by the healthcare providers who serve your employees. Why would you as a purchaser NOT expect this sort of vital training by those who provide such important, sensitive, and expensive services to your increasingly diverse workforce?
  4. Survey your employees about their attitudes and experiences with your plan’s healthcare providers. Understand the barriers they are facing. How frequently are the barriers related to poor access and lack of diversity or cultural competency?  You will learn a lot from asking your employees, and this can turn into advocacy, positive actions and outcomes.
  5. Review your policies. Make sure they support access and consider the changes in your workforce’s composition. Research has shown that interventions that focus on policy level changes versus individual education have more impact on changing the socioeconomic inequalities in health. So, on a macro level, if your organization makes its voice known to public policy makers individually or in association with other employers, then make sure policy makers have an awareness of health disparities among minorities and are addressing them.  Make sure they know these disparities are harming your community, your employees, and your business.

For more information or for help in your creation of workplace awareness on health disparities affecting racial and ethnic minority populations, please visit the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities: https://www.nimhd.nih.gov/programs/edu-training/nmhm/

About the Authors

Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.

Unwana Udoko is an MSW Intern from the University of Tennessee.

About Espyr

For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.

Sources

National Minority Health Month

US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Health

https://www.nimhd.nih.gov/programs/edu-training/nmhm/

 

The Economics Daily

US Bureau of Labor Statistics

https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/black-women-made-up-53-percent-of-the-black-labor-force-in-2018.htm

 

Integrating Workforce Health Into Employer Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

Sherman, B. W., et al

National Library of Medicine

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33353374/