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Racial Disparities in Health Care: Closing the Heart Health Gap

By Heather Kerrigan | Sep 21, 2020

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. While African Americans have a lower prevalence of this disease, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that they die at a higher rate than other racial groups. In fact, African Americans have a shorter life expectancy than white Americans, according to the American Heart Association — and that is explained in part by increased heart disease mortality.

Racial disparities in health care can have serious consequences. As a union, it's important to step in and educate members about these issues, help them access care and support efforts to reverse these trends.

Heart Disease Contributors

The death rate disparity is driven partly by higher rates of certain chronic diseases and behaviors among African Americans that increases the chances a person will develop heart disease. Factors include:

  • Hypertension. In addition to a higher likelihood of developing high blood pressure, data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that African Americans are also less likely to have the condition under control. The disease tends to develop earlier in life among African Americans and can cause lasting damage before the symptoms are identified.
  • Diabetes. While treatable and preventable, members may not recognize early warning signs or simply avoid treatment.
  • Obesity. Studies indicate that higher rates of obesity are in part caused by more sedentary behavior and less convenient access to healthy foods, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
  • Smoking. While young white men smoke more than African Americans, as they age, the Cleveland Clinic also reports that this trend reverses. Smoking has well-established health risks — the habit hardens arteries, makes the heart work harder and can raise blood pressure.

4 Ways to Support Members

Research published by the American Heart Association has found that African Americans often face lower levels of health literacy and have less access to preventive measures that help protect overall well-being. The union's role to play in supporting these members means leaders have a platform to help improve health outcomes.


Talk with members about prevention methods, factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease and possible warning signs of the disease. Provide guidance on where to find in-depth information, such as the American Heart Association.

Preventive Care

Encourage members to visit their doctor at least once per year for a regular checkup and follow their doctor's orders for any screenings, medications or lifestyle adjustments. Recommend that members bring a list of questions and use these visits to talk with their doctor about their personal risk factors so that they can make a plan to address any concerns. Work with employers to ensure members have time to prioritize preventive care and follow-ups.


Identifying heart disease early is key to getting care that could ultimately save a member's life. Members should work with their doctor to determine which screenings would be the most beneficial. Remind members of any health insurance benefits they have that can help cover the cost of screenings and other interventions.

Healthy Lifestyles

Focusing on a healthy diet, especially one that is low in sodium, and regular exercise can improve overall health. Where members have limited access to fresh food, bring a farmers market to members at their job site or union hall. Ask interested members to teach healthy cooking skills or share favorite recipes, and encourage employers to stock healthier food options in cafeterias and vending machines. Because many union members have sedentary jobs, consider starting a friendly competition or scheduling union activities that encourage movement.

Although heart disease disproportionately impacts African Americans, the union can work to help reverse such racial disparities in health care by educating and supporting members as they seek care and make lifestyle changes that support better health outcomes.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book, Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.