The Effects of Gene-Environment Interaction on Blood Pressure among African Americans

The Effects of Gene-Environment Interaction on Blood Pressure among African Americans

Jacquelyn Taylor, PhD, PNP-BC, RN, FAHA, FAAN, was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and part of what those who selected her considered was her research on gene-environment interaction and its effects on blood pressure among African Americans.

“African American women have the highest incidence and prevalence of hypertension among any ethnic, racial, and gender group in the United States,” explains Taylor, who works at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing as the first Vernice D. Ferguson Endowed Chair. “It is important for me to understand not only the genetic or hereditary underpinnings of this health disparity, but also the psychological and/or environment interaction with genomic risks that may influence development of hypertension.”

In her research, Taylor says that she’s focused for the most part on African American women and children. Most of her studies have drawn on two or three generations of African Americans. While the ages of the children studied have often been wide, in her most recent study, she targeted children from head start programs, who ranged in age from 3-5 years old, along with their biological mothers.

“We have had a lot of discoveries in our research and have disseminated our findings in journals ranging from nursing, medical, public health, genomic, and interdisciplinary. Overall, we have found that gene-environment interactions for certain factors such as parenting stress, perceived racism and discrimination, and others significantly influence increases in blood pressure,” says Taylor.

She admits that she wasn’t shocked by the findings: “The findings were not all that surprising as I expected that social determinants of health were significant factors in health outcomes and looking at the combinatorial effects with genetics and epigenetics only further illuminates that magnitude of interaction on health outcomes such as hypertension,” Taylor says.

Although Taylor says that her research is important because of what she did discover, “One important aspect of the research is that we are able to identify genetic risk for chronic diseases such as hypertension in children as young as three prior to them developing the disorder. Early identification of risk provides an opportunity for nurses and other health professionals to intervene to reduce risk of developing hypertension as in previous generations. Interventions based on the research with this population may require focusing on social determinants of health and lifestyle modification in addition to or rather than conventional pharmacological methods.”

Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Diabetes Care

Race is a socially constructed concept, and its boundaries frequently shift. Though racial categories have changed over time, a major distinction remains between blacks and whites.1 Race can be regarded as a proxy for class, and health care disparities are the products of social and economic inequality.2 Upon the request of the U.S. Congress, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) formed a committee to evaluate these disparities and provide recommendations concerning how to combat them.3 They released a report showing the depth of racial and ethnic inequalities in American health care in 2002.4 

The IOM committee defined health care disparities “as racial or ethnic differences in the quality of health care that are not due to access related factors, clinical needs, preferences, and appropriateness of intervention.”3 They concluded the following:

  • Racial and ethnic disparities exist in the U.S. health care system.
  • Disparities are rooted in historic as well as contemporary inequality in social and economic aspects of American lives.
  • Ethnic discrimination is among historical factors leading to disparities.
  • There are numerous sources contributing factors, including health systems, utilization managers and health care providers, stereotyping, prejudice, and bias.
  • Clinical uncertainty amongst health care providers may affect equal health care as well.3

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, health care disparity can be linked with economic, social, and environmental disadvantages.5

Disparities in diabetes care

Many researchers have found racial and ethnic disparities in disease management, including diabetes.6 Other affected conditions include asthma, hepatitis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.7 Associated with poor patient outcomes, disparities are deemed unacceptable.3 Findings in a majority of these studies show that regardless of cause, minorities’ experiences differ from whites in many disease categories. Most literary reports on diabetic disparities pertain to African Americans; data on Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders were limited.3

According to Bal, projections estimate that by 2025, there will be about 300 million people with diabetes worldwide, with the biggest increase occurring in the developing countries.8 The effects of unmanaged diabetes can be life threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diabetes is the leading cause of many health problems, such as kidney failure, blindness, lower limb amputations, stroke, and heart disease; it is the seventh-leading cause of death in America.9 Reasons attributed to diabetes disparities include differences in income, barriers to health care (type and lack of insurance), and divergent medical needs. After accounting for these causative factors, racial and ethnic disparities in the delivery of health care still persist.10 The United States has made much progress in establishing fairness and justice in many aspects of its citizens’ lives. A barrier yet to be crossed is health care equity. One major economic effect of health inequality is overuse of urgent care centers or emergency rooms for routine care.11

African Americans have the highest rates of diabetes diagnosis; Hispanics, Asian Americans, and American Indians are affected by diabetes disparities as well.9 Chin et al. evaluated the care received by 1,376 diabetic patients aged 65 years or older. Compared to whites, African Americans’ health perception and quality of care were low; they had fewer physician visits per year than whites, higher rates of emergency visits, and poor health perceptions.6 Although African Americans are less likely to receive certain treatments, they are more likely to receive non-leg-sparing treatment (amputation) than whites.12 In 2005, diabetic blacks were over two times more likely to receive lower extremity amputation than diabetic whites.9 Amongst the elderly, diabetes was almost twice as prevalent in blacks as whites, and the frequency of amputations in blacks was almost four times the number with whites, with 62% of the principal diagnosis for amputation being diabetes.12

Chin et al. indicated that African Americans with diabetes might experience reduced use of the emergency department and improved perception of health if the access to preventive care is improved. They also recommend improving the quality of care for Medicare patients, many of whom are African Americans.6

Relevance to nursing

In many areas of practice, nurses provide the most direct patient care. In acute care, nurses assess patient glucose levels and treat as needed. They are also more likely to provide diabetic patients with disease education in collaboration with dieticians. Nurses must be aware of their own prejudices and biases that may interfere with the care they provide diabetic patients from different racial and/or ethnic backgrounds. In addition to nursing schools including cultural literacy in their curriculum, patient education must reflect cultural congruence with patient background to be effective. Brown et al. conducted a study to evaluate two different culturally sensitive interventions designed for Mexican Americans. Findings indicated the participants in both intervention groups had perceived improvements in sense of control over their diabetes.13

Piette et al. studied the effect of automated telephone disease management (ATDM), with nurses following up with patients via phone. After 12 months, researchers found the participants receiving the interventions had more frequent self blood sugar checks and foot inspections compared with patients receiving more standard care. In addition, the glycosylated hemoglobin level was lower in the intervention group, and overall, the glycemic control and the diabetic symptoms were improved. This result is significant for APNs who may be planning interventions for reducing diabetic care disparities in minorities. With proper monitoring, minority diabetic patients may have more successful diabetes management.14

In another study, Piette et al. reviewed automated telephone calls with a nurse’s follow-up of 280 Spanish-and English-speaking adults diabetics. Findings indicated that glycemic controls were better in patients receiving the interventions than those receiving the usual care; the treatment group also had better glucose, weight, and foot monitoring than the control group.15 The automated calling system was available in both Spanish and English language, providing culturally sensitive care to people who might not speak or understand English well.

Yeboah-Korang, Kleppinger, and Fortinsky studied variations in the use of home health services amongst participants from different racial and ethnic groups with type 2 diabetes. They found African Americans received fewer nurse visits and other clinical disciplines than whites. In addition, Hispanics were less likely to receive physical therapy or home health aide than whites as well.16

Jenkins et al. researched the efforts to decrease the number of amputations caused by diabetes in African Americans. The Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program in South Carolina propelled the efforts toward reducing the number of amputations in African Americans. Data for South Carolina indicated foot amputation was a problem for African Americans, and Jenkins et al. evaluated how the Community Chronic Care Conceptual Model for REACH Charleston and Georgetown Diabetes Coalition addressed the issue. The coalition efforts involved racial and ethnic approaches, and they included education of health professionals, two days of nurse training on foot care, inclusion of podiatrist in staff membership, a foot examination by the nurses with a physician follow-up, a media campaign, volunteers and community health advocates, and diverse educational materials for patients. These REACH efforts have reduced the number of diabetes hospitalizations in both Charleston and Georgetown counties from about 38.7 per 1,000 diabetes patients in 1999 to about 21.7 per 1,000 in 2008. The numbers of amputations in both counties have also decreased significantly since 1999.17

Another study by Two Feathers et al. attempted to determine the effect of a community REACH program culturally tailored to address the diabetes care needs of African Americans and Latinos in Detroit, Michigan. Results showed significant improvement in dietary knowledge and glycosylated hemoglobin among participants.18 With these two reports, one can conclude that the REACH program has the potential to reduce disparities in diabetes care; hence, the need to adopt this program nationwide.

Chin, Walters, Cook, and Huang described many strategies to reduce health care disparities, such as interventions addressing multiple levels of change, culturally tailored quality improvement, and nurse-led interventions. Culturally tailored intervention has the potential to “enhance effectiveness of general quality improvement interventions among ethnic minority groups.” Additionally, nurse-led interventions can yield positive results because nurses are both cost effective, and may be able to spend more time with patients and provide culturally appropriate care.19 Using their training and experience, nurses can effectively collaborate with other health care workers to develop programs that reduce disparities in diabetic care. Peek et al. concluded there may be benefits to culturally tailored programs addressing disparities, and interventions should focus on not just patients but also providers and health systems, including nurse clinicians and case managers. They “found good evidence that nurses acting as clinicians (via treatment algorithms and physician support) can produce significant improvement in both process and outcome measures.”11

Prejudice and bias

Although a majority of health care practitioners may abhor prejudice, prejudicial approaches to health care exist among health care providers; in fact, they may not be able to recognize they are displaying such behaviors.3 In a study of 720 physicians, Schulman et al. found a patient’s race and sex influenced how physicians provided care. Physicians were less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization to black females when compared with a white male, white female, or a black male.20 In a study of 60 therapists primed with African American stereotypes or neutral words, African American stereotypes may lead to either positive or negative impressions in health care providers. Indeed, negative impressions may influence the way health care providers rate patients’ attributes.21

Forces behind health care disparities can be multifaceted. Balsa and McGuire identified three mechanisms, including bias against minorities, significant uncertainty when practitioners interact with minority patients, and health care providers’ beliefs or stereotypes regarding minority patients’ behaviors and health. Some practitioners have difficulty understanding the symptoms minority patients report; with the greater clinical uncertainty along with stereotypes identified at the base of patient data gathering, there is the need for a policy that can prevent further propagation of disparities. Balsa and McGuire, in addressing unfairness and discrimination in health care, “treated prejudice as a ‘psychological cost’ born by the doctor when treating a patient of a different race or ethnic group.” A white practitioner may experience a distaste or psychological cost when dealing with patients of a different race, which then influences the practitioner’s decision making.22

Pettigrew and Meertens presented two sides of prejudice in social research, including subtle and blatant prejudice. They called blatant prejudice “hot, close, and direct,” while subtle prejudice is the opposite. Prejudicial behaviors tend to lead to the formation of beliefs promoting discrimination and subtle prejudice. It often involves the defense of traditional values, which may include blaming victims and exaggerating cultural differences through gross stereotypes—although the differences may be genuine—and denial of positive responses toward the out-group.23

Demographic and fiscal data

In general, health care disparities are costly, and the magnitude of the cost burden should not be overlooked. Waidmann reports that in 2009, disparities among African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanics cost an estimated $23.9 billion dollars, while the extra cost for Medicare and private insurers was an estimated $15.6 billion and $5.1 billion, respectively. Disparities in diabetes, hypertension, renal disease, and stroke in African Americans and Hispanics resulted in excess cost in 2009; disparity between blacks and whites alone cost an estimated $2+ billion. With Medicare and Medicaid combined, health disparities for both African Americans and Hispanics cost about $12 billion and $5 billion, respectively.24 According to Rastogi, Johnson, Hoeffel, and Drewery, 308,745,538 million people lived in the United States in 2010, and 42,020,743 (13.6%) were black.25

Many reasons have been attributed to health care disparities, but one discussed most commonly is insurance. Forty-nine percent of African Americans in 2007 had employer-sponsored insurance compared to 66% of whites. The average African American family earned $33,916; the average white family, $54,920.5

Between 2008–2009, 19% of all Americans, 23% of the black population, 14% of whites, and 34% Hispanics considered non-elderly were without health insurance.26 A different report by Cohen, Ward, and Schiller stated that in 2010, 48.6 million Americans (16%) did not have health insurance; whites were more likely to have health insurance than Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans.27 Minorities were also more likely to live in rural areas where there are fewer health care centers and hospitals. Even among those in urban areas, minorities were more likely to require multiple buses to reach health care facilities or hospitals. And, because minorities are more likely to be poor, they are less likely to receive adequate, quality health services.10

In a 2007–2009 national survey, of the Americans over 20 years old, about 7% of whites, 8% of Asian Americans, 12% of Hispanics, and 13% of blacks were diagnosed with diabetes. In 2010, diabetes affected 25.8 million people in the United States, or about 8.3% of the population; of that number, seven million went undiagnosed. In addition, 1.9 million Americans aged 20 years or older were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2010. Among people 65 or older living in the United States in 2010, 10.9 million people (26.9%) had diabetes. Lastly, in 2010, about 215,000 Americans younger than 20 years old had either type 1 or 2 diabetes.9

In 2010, among those aged 20 years or older, 4.9 million (18.7%) blacks, as opposed to 15.7 million (10.2%) whites, had diabetes. In 2006, the rate at which treatment was initiated for end-stage renal disease for diabetic blacks was about two and a half times the rate for diabetic whites. In 2006, diabetic African Americans were one and a half times more likely to be discharged from the hospital than diabetic whites.9 Lastly, in 2006, African Americans were over two times more likely to die from diabetes than whites.28 According to the 2008 National Healthcare Quality Report, the direct cost of diabetic care in 2007 was $116 billion, while the total cost was $174 billion.7

Moral and ethical issues

Concerns about moral and ethical issues surrounding these disparities call into question justice and fairness in the United States.10 Practitioners and policy makers alike must address disparities with a sense of urgency—projections show that by 2050, about 50% of the population will belong to a “minority” group.29 For practitioners, disparities “pose moral and ethical dilemmas that will be among the most significant challenges of today’s rapidly changing health systems.”3

Health care practitioners must follow certain ethical principles, including beneficence, nonmaleficence, fidelity, justice, and veracity. Nonmaleficence requires that health care providers not do any harm to patients; justice pertains to the morality that is involved in fairness, equity, and rightness of care of all patients.30 Many of the findings reviewed have shown disparities occur as a result of omission, commission, or inadequacy of action. According to Balsa and McGuire, information-based policies will “at least satisfy the medical creed, ‘first do no harm.’”22

According to Smedley, health care providers must choose between what is ethically right and what limited health care resources can address. Providers may then allocate more resources to a particular group of people over the other. However, public trust may be harmed if people perceive health care providers engaging in social triaging.3 According to Bal, in the next 25 years the burden of diabetes may make the ethical issue of access to primary care shaper in order to avoid the need for intensive diabetes complication care. There is an urgent moral need to attack diabetes at the primary care and public health levels to implement prevention strategies.8

Health policy issues pertaining to disparities in diabetes care

One can assume and hope that when and if prejudice is at the base of disparities, having a policy that mandates practitioners provide equal care may “result in an improvement of health care conditions for minorities and in a fair outcome.”22 The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) has begun reviewing factors affecting discrimination against the health care environment. One federal initiative by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) focuses on the development of a national report on ethnic and racial health care disparities.3 Smith proposed the use of report cards to assess ethnic and racial disparities.31

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has set some health care goals and action plans concerning these disparity issues. Their first goal is health care transformation, where insurance coverage expands to include people that do not have it, along with increased access to health care through an innovative health care delivery approach. The second goal is to strengthen the health and human services workshop, and to achieve this, there is a plan to recruit undergraduates from underserved communities for biomedical and public health fields, as well as supporting community health worker training. The third goal of the HHS is to advance the health, well-being, and safety of Americans. To achieve this, new CDC grants will be implemented to achieve improved health care in many of the diseases affected by disparities. The fourth goal is to advance scientific knowledge and innovation by implementing a new strategy for data collection and analysis as authorized by the Affordable Care Act. The fifth goal is to increase the efficiency, accountability, and transparency of the HHS programs by taking into consideration the assessment of health care disparities programs and policies.5

In a study focused on the preferences of patients for same race health care providers, Malat and Hamilton found when black patients believed discrimination existed in the health care provider-patient dyads, they were more likely to prefer the same-race provider.1 Cooper and Roter in a study of 252 adults found patients may benefit from having race-concordant visits because the patients were more likely to rate their satisfaction with their physicians highly. Cooper and Roter recommended there be a policy concerning increased number of ethnic minority physicians; they also encouraged fostering trust between patients and providers.32 LaVeist and Nuru-Jeter examined the connection between the patient-doctor concordance and patient satisfaction using a sample that included African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. When patients had the choice of selecting their own physicians, the participants were more likely to select persons of their own race. There is then the need to increase the number of health care practitioners from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds while at the same time increasing practitioners’ capacity to interact with patients in a culturally congruent way.33

A major deterrent to equality in health care is finance; factors such as capitation and incentives to providers who practice frugally can negatively affect the quality of care people from racial and ethnic minorities receive, and lessen the negative effects on the care of whites. Provider incentives may not necessarily lead to disparities in care if more finely crafted; an example might include rewarding providers for time spent engaging with patients and their families, which may help overcome cultural communication barriers and improve provider empathy.3

Balsa and McGuire advocated for information-based policies that may break stereotypical patterns or reduce the degree of uncertainty in health care; these are more likely to be effective when lack of information is the underlying cause of disparities. Balsa and McGuire also suggest using rule-based policies, which require patients be treated the same way.22 Beal reports a gap in the training of health care providers in cultural competence. In addition, there is a need for improved interpersonal care, improved cross-cultural relationships, and proper provider training regarding engaging patients from all backgrounds. There are currently some programs in place to increase the number of practitioners from underrepresented populations; however, interested stakeholders have to apply for the funds. Additionally, many of the programs are underfunded.34 

Another policy issue is proximity of health care centers to where minorities live. Diabetic patients residing in remote areas should be able to reach their health care providers without undue stress. Nurse-managed clinics help reach people that otherwise would not have access to health services; however, there is a need for more nurse-managed facilities. Employing community health workers (CHW) can also reduce health disparities. Corkery et al. conducted a study to assess the effect of CHWs on diabetes education program completion among Hispanics. They found the assignment of a CHW had a robust effect on “program completion, controlling for financial status, and language spoken,” as well as “on knowledge, self-care behavior, or glycohemoglobin outcome variables was not statistically significant.” However, the researchers concluded that the ability of Hispanic patients to complete the diabetes education program led to improvement of patient knowledge, glycemic control, and the displayed self care behaviors.35 According to Smedley et al. in order for a CHW program to be successful, there is the need for a properly designed program that allows for adequate CHW training and supervision.3

After reviewing literature concerning disparities in diabetic care, White, Beech, and Miller concluded that in approaching diabetic disparities, the providers should consider patient and provider factors, including the use of nurse educators, case managers, algorithms, and diabetes self-management education. Other aspects of care, as recommended by White et al., include seeking patient colleague feedback, consideration of literacy and numeracy in designing educational materials, increasing the use of interpreters and language-specific reading materials, and use of patient-centered communication processes.36

In a promising report, Peek et al. found many interventions to reduce disparities in diabetes care already implemented, but the design and method of evaluation of the current interventions “leave us with many unanswered questions regarding the benefits of cultural tailoring, the impact of interventions on health disparities, and the ideal target of interventions (patient, provider, organization).”11

Summary, conclusions, and recommendations

There are three major issues surrounding disparity in diabetes care: the patient, the health care provider, and the system. The patient’s personal issues, including lack of trust in the system and/or health care providers, along with unhealthy habits, may serve as impediments to appropriate care. The provider issues may pertain to bias, stereotype, and care competency level, while the system concerns lack of access to health care services such as proximity of health care facility, insurance coverage, and education opportunity.

While the burden of diabetes is enormous, policies can be put in place to reduce the disparities in its care. Using trained volunteers and CHWs, such as the promotoras and curanderos (Latino/Hispanic community health care leaders), may help ease the burden of health care disparities in general. In order to improve the patient/health care provider interrelationship, there is the need for improved cultural literacy of health care. In addition, health care providers need to advocate for diabetic patients that are not getting adequate care so that the morbidity and mortality associated with diabetes can be minimized. All persons with diabetes deserve culturally appropriate care, tied to treatment and management success. Health policies are needed to address access and barriers to health care, and nurses have vital responsibilities in promoting system-wide positive change. Program initiatives like REACH need to be used in many more communities.

The work that needs to be done to reduce disparities in diabetes care may be challenging. There are scattered ongoing efforts to reduce diabetes disparities, but the efforts need to be present throughout the country. When such initiatives are widespread, there is the potential for greater improvement in diabetic care of minority patients. The multifaceted nature of the issues surrounding disparities in diabetic care requires careful assessment to employ appropriate strategies. Nurses are in a special position to make a difference in diabetes care and help reduce disparities.

There is the need for ongoing cultural competence training for health care providers, which should be standardized nationally, regionally, or by state. Just like health care practitioners are expected to have certain requirements for maintaining their license, cultural competence continuing education could be part of the requirements for license renewal. All health practitioner schools (medical, physical therapy, dental, etc.) should include cultural competence in the curriculum and not leave it to the individual student to find a way to attain the knowledge. Health care providers should work closely with local government on policies that improve health care equality. Nurses and other health providers should belong to professional organizations that enhance their capacity to lobby for policies and programs that reduce health care disparities.


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  2. W.F. Wong, “Confronting the uncomfortable: Health plans and health disparities: A moral dilemma in a morally driven industry,” The Permanente Journal, 12(1), 81-86.
  3. B.D. Smedley, A.Y. Stith, and A.R. Nelson, “Unequal treatment. Confronting racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare,” Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
  4. T.A. LaVeist, “Minority populations and health. An introduction to health disparities in the Unites States.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. United States Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.), “The HHS action plan to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities,” Retrieved from:
  6. M.H. Chin, J.X. Zhang, and K. Merrell, “Diabetes in the African-American Medicare population: Morbidity, quality of care, and resource utilization,” Diabetes Care, 21, 1090–1095.
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  9. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). “National diabetes fact sheet.” Retrieved from:
  10. G. K. Steel Fisher, “Addressing Unequal Treatment: Disparities in Health Care. The Commonwealth Fund.” Retrieved from:
  11. M.E. Peek, A. Cargill, and E.S. Huang, “Diabetes health disparities: a systematic
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  12. M.E. Gornick, P.W. Egers, T.W. Reilly, R.M. Mentnech, L.K. Fitterman, L.E. Kucken, and B.C. Vladeck, “Effects of race and income on mortality and use of services among Medicare beneficiaries,” New England Journal of Medicine, 335, 791-799.
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  14. J.D. Piette, M. Weinberger, F.B. Kraemer, and S.J. McPhee, “Impact of automated calls with nurse follow-up on diabetes treatment outcomes in a department of Veterans affairs health care system,” Diabetes Care, 24, 202–208. 
  15. J.D. Piette, M. Weinberger, S.J. McPhee, C.A. Mah, F.B. Kraemer, and L.M. Crapo, “Do automated calls with nurse follow-up improve self-care and glycemic control among vulnerable patients with diabetes?” American Journal of Medicine, 108, 20-27. Retrieved from
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  17. C. Jenkins, P. Myers, K. Heidar, T. Kelechi, and J. Buckner-Brown, “Efforts to decrease diabetes-related amputations in African Americans by the racial and ethnic approaches to community health Charleston and Georgetown diabetes coalition,” Family & Community Health, 34(1), S63-S78.
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A Nursing Perspective: Does One’s Skin Color and Accent Affect Health Care Quality?

While studying for an American Nurse Association Commission on Nurse Certification examination, I was surprised to read a question regarding an African American male diagnosed with lung cancer. The question inquired how a master’s-prepared nurse would respond when the patient said he would have a better prognosis if his doctor listened to his symptom complaints. Interestingly, the “correct response” did not strike me as a response at all; it was an acknowledgement of his statement, given that statistically, despite his education or economic level, he would likely still receive substandard health care treatment as an ethnic minority.

I shared this scenario with my colleague Maria Krol, a fellow Bridgeport Hospital School of Nursing faculty member. Ms. Krol, Peruvian by familial origin, and myself, a Jamaican American, began to discuss the unfortunate state of health care if this has to be a question on a certification exam. Ms. Krol shared her own personal experience of witnessing Latino patients, who spoke minimal or no English, unable to have their health care needs explained to them despite the availability of translator phones, an electronic translator, and trained health care translators. She noted the problem was often the infrequency of translator device usage and the lack of availability, specifically during the evening and nighttime hours, of trained health care translators. Ms. Krol also noted that in outpatient settings like clinics and physician offices, translator devices and health care translators are often unavailable. How do we begin to bridge the gap imposed upon segments of our society in America—the land founded upon opportunity for all?

Examining the case for the existence of vulnerable populations

As the American Heart Association noted in Health Day News, “wide differences in the care of people who’ve had a stroke still exist between whites and ethnic minorities in the United States.”1 Dr. Salvador Cruz-Flores, the study’s author and Director of the Souers Stroke Institute at Saint Louis University, says, “We see disparities in every aspect of stroke care, from lack of awareness to stroke risk factors and symptoms to delayed arrival to the emergency room and increased waiting time.” Even after the stroke has occurred, disparities continue throughout the treatment and rehabilitation stages of care, he says.

The American Heart Association suggested that the varied medical risk factors of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure contribute to the disparities among ethnic minority groups in stroke care. It was noted that amongst African Americans and Hispanic Americans, the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes is significant, placing both ethnic minority groups at increased risk for stroke.

In her article “Vulnerability in Research and Health Care: Describing the Elephant in the Room,” Dr. Samia A. Hurst discusses how although the medical and science communities recognize vulnerable populations, historically, figuring out ways to protect them has proven difficult. Hurst provides a comprehensive list consisting of cited examples of vulnerability in human subjects research, including the following:

  1. International Conference on Harmonisation (ICH) of Tripartite Guidelines: Those incapable of giving consent, minors, refugees, nomads, homeless persons, ethnic minority groups, patients in emergency situations, unemployed or impoverished persons, persons in nursing homes, patients with incurable diseases, and more
  2. Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS): The unemployed, members of communities unfamiliar with modern medical concepts, individuals who are politically powerless, patients with incurable disease, prisoners, refugees or displaced persons, nomads, homeless persons, some ethnic and racial minority groups, patients in emergency rooms, people receiving welfare benefits or social assistance and other poor people, residents of nursing homes, elderly persons, and more
  3. Declaration of Helsinki: Persons susceptible to coercion, persons who will not derive direct benefits from participation, persons for whom research is mixed with clinical care, and incompetent persons
  4. Belmont Report. The very sick, the institutionalized, economically disadvantaged, and racial minorities
  5. 45 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR): Pregnant women and fetuses, children and prisoners2

The variation among organizations regarding what populations are considered vulnerable is significant in itself, it contributes to a narrowed view of who should be protected and why. Persons can become vulnerable through injustices, their own fault, and misfortune; nevertheless, the goal of all health care organizations, as well as organizations conducting research with vulnerable populations, is to ensure equality of services rendered.

Disparities in ethnic populations across the socioeconomic spectrum

D’Anna, Ponce, and Siegel, in their article “Racial and ethnic health disparities: evidence of discrimination’s effects across the SEP spectrum,” discuss how discrimination, from a psychosocial perspective, can be a stressor for affected populations. Ultimately, the discrimination ethnic/racial groups experience could contribute to having physical and mental health problems. The purpose of their research was to investigate the association between perceived discrimination in receiving health care and racial/ethnic disparities in self-rated health status, physical, and emotional functional limitations among a diverse sample of California adults; to assess whether discrimination effects vary by racial/ethnic group and gender; and to evaluate how the effects of discrimination on health are manifest across the socioeconomic position (SEP) spectrum.”3

The diverse racial/ethnic group data was collected from a 55,428-participant California Health Interview Survey in 2001. The researchers noted two types in their study that qualitatively identified discrimination: “discrimination due to race/ethnicity, language, or accent and other discrimination.”3 The California Health Interview Survey included such topics as alcohol and cigarette use, diet, exercise, dental health, mental health, medical care/advice, physical health conditions, the utilization of health care services, compliance with recommended tests and treatment, prescriptions, perception of discrimination in health care settings, immigrant status, gun access, sexual orientation, education, employment, income, age, sex, race/ethnicity, and self-reported physical and mental health status. The survey frame included only Californian households that had listed landline telephone numbers. Interviews were conducted in Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin dialects), Khmer, and English.

D’Anna, Ponce, and Siegel found discrimination due to race/ethnicity and language/accent, as well as other discrimination, had a negative effect on how ethnic minorities self-rated their emotional and physical health. And, while researchers observed variations between racial/ethnic groups and even gender, the effect of discrimination on physical health was noted as attenuated among participants of higher socioeconomic position. For example, Latinos reported discrimination when it came to emotional health; however, for physical health, minimal discrimination was noted.3 The Latino population encompasses a broad mix of persons from different countries that from a linguistic, migratory, and cultural perspective vary greatly. This alone may prompt the need for further studies in health care discrimination for similar yet distinct racial/ethnic groups.

Historically, discrimination and racial harassment have been linked to poor health and health outcomes as self-reported by ethnic minority patients.4 Researchers noted that prolonged exposure to inferior health care treatment invalidated patients’ self-worth, blocked aspirations, and damaged their self-esteem. The ethnic minority patients’ initial psychological response may eventually develop into the physiological problems that lead to deterioration in health manifesting in the form of such conditions as cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and hypertension.4,5

Exploring the direct socioeconomic effects of physical illness in an ethnic minority group with education and income being factors, Jackson researched the inverse association existing between hypertension and income for African American men and women.6 Roux et al. noted that in New York City’s Harlem, African American women had a decreased risk of hypertension that correlated with the achievement of a higher level of education and income, whereas African American men had a higher risk for hypertension with the achievement of a college education.7 Researchers recommend further exploration on how education and income in other ethnic minority groups affect psychological and physiological health outcomes.

How do we repair a system that doesn’t seem to empower the education of underrepresented ethnic minority groups on their risk factors for poor health outcomes? And when do we actually use current research to not only acknowledge that disparities exist, but hold health care facilities and professionals accountable for the delivery of quality health care to all of their patients regardless of their ethnic origin?

As nurses, we are patient advocates who assist in navigating the health care system. Our goal is to ensure our patients obtain optimum wellness by educating them on such topics as safe medication administration, exercise, self-injections of prescribed medications, daily weights, and various signs and symptoms of bodily and emotional illnesses. Therefore, when we see patients that are not given thorough or accurate medical, surgical, rehabilitation, or psychiatric treatment, are we not obligated as health care professionals to ensure equitable treatment is provided?

The Department of Health and Human Services released a plan in 2011 to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the United States. The plan has five major goals: “transform the health care system by expanding the health care coverage of persons and thereby increase access to health care; strengthen the health care workforce by recruiting more minorities for medical and public medical careers, supporting of the training of community health workers such as promotoras (Spanish-speaking community health workers), and improving health care interpreting services; improving the health of minority communities through community transformation grants to target health disease, tobacco-related illnesses, flu, asthma, maternal child health, and childhood obesity; the improvement of research and data collection involving racial and ethnic minorities; and, lastly, an increase accountability and transparency of the Department of Health and Human Services’ programs that are working toward the goal of the reduction of minority health disparities.”8,9

As nurse educators responsible for preparing the minds of future nurses for direct patient care in a variety of clinical settings, we feel obligated to train our students understand and respect the rights of all people, as they deserve the opportunity—through the conveying of nursing and medical knowledge—to make informed decisions about their health care and to receive quality care. Skin color and language differences should never be a consideration that clouds our judgment.


  1. Health Day News, retrieved on May 26, 2011, American Heart Association, (2011): 1-2.
  2. Samia A. Hurst, “Vulnerability in Research and Health Care: Describing the Elephant in the Room,” Bioethics 22 (2008): 193.
  3. Laura Hoyt D’Anna, Ninez A. Ponce, and Judith M. Siegel, “Racial and ethnic health disparities: evidence of discrimination’s effects across the SEP spectrum,” Ethnicity and Health 5 (2010):
  4. 121-143.
  5. S. Karlsen and J.Y. Nazroo, “Relation between racial discrimination, social class, and health among ethnic minority groups,” American Journal of Public Health 92 (2002): 624-631.
  6. B.K. Finch, et al., “The Role of Discrimination and Acculturative Stress and the Physical Health of Mexican Origin Adults,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 23 (2001): 399-429.
  7. P. Jackson, “Health and inequalities among minority populations,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 60 (2005): S63-S67
  8. A. Diez-Roux, et al., “Prevalence and social correlates of cardiovascular disease, risk factors in Harlem,” American Journal of Public Health 89 (1999): 302-307.
  9. Sherry A. Gilead, Garth Graham, and Howard K. Koh, “Reducing racial and ethnic disparities: the action plan from the Department of Health and Human Services,” Health Affairs 30 (2011): 1822-1829. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0673.
  10. J. Warner, “New United States plan to improve health care for minorities,” WebMD Health News, April 12, 2011: 1-2,
  11. Alexander, G. Caleb, Gadon, Margaret, Vanderbilt, Susanne K. and Wynia, Matthew K.(2007). A qualitative study of physicians’ engagement in reducing healthcare disparities. Journal of the National Medical Association, December 99 (2007): 1315-1322.
  12. Espinosa, M. Cristina. (2009). Ethnic spirituality, gender and health care in the Peruvian Amazon. Ethnicity and Health, October 14(5): 423-437.
  13. Tirado, Miguel. (2011). Role of mobile health in the care of culturally and linguistically diverse United States populations. Perspectives in Health Information Management, Winter 2011: 1-7.

ISHIB Offers Guidelines for Treating Hypertension in African Americans

According to the International Society on Hypertension in Blacks (ISHIB), African Americans are significantly more likely to die from high blood pressure than the general public. Yet until now, no clinical guidelines have been available to assist health care professionals in developing HBP treatment strategies targeted to the special needs of this vulnerable, high-risk population.

To close this deadly information gap, ISHIB convened a panel of 16 prominent hypertension experts to develop the first-ever guidelines for treating and managing high blood pressure in African Americans. These benchmark recommendations, published in March in the Archives of Internal Medicine, have been endorsed by the American Heart Association, the National Medical Association, the Association of Black Cardiologists and other leading medical organizations.

The ISHIB guidelines urge physicians and nurses to adopt four key strategies:


    • Recognize that many black patients will need to start on at least two medications—such as combinations of ACE inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), calcium channel blockers or diuretics—to successfully lower their blood pressure. ISHIB recommends using the “15 over 10” rule: Any patient with a systolic BP of 15 mm Hg or more above the desired goal and a diastolic BP equal to or greater than 10 mm Hg above the goal should start on two drugs instead of one.


    • Lower the target blood pressure goal for African Americans who have heart disease, kidney disorders or diabetes. Specifically, ISHIB calls for a more aggressive target of 130/80 mm Hg for black patients with these conditions, rather than the previous standard of 140/90 mm Hg (for most patients) and 130/85 Hg (for diabetics) recommended in 1997 by the federal government.


    • Treat hypertensive black patients who have diabetes with medications that have been shown to slow the progression of kidney disease—such as ACE inhibitors or ARBs—as part of their combination therapy.


  • Urge patients to make lifestyle modifications, such as engaging regularly in appropriate exercise, limiting their alcohol intake and avoiding tobacco. ISHIB also endorses the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which clinical studies have shown to be very effective in lowering blood pressure, especially in African Americans.

Nurses can obtain the full text of the new guidelines by contacting ISHIB at (404) 875-6263 or visiting