Racial and ethnic minorities have experienced disproportionate rates of infection and death during the COVID-19 pandemic due to social determinants that have prevented them from obtaining equal medical care and treatment since the founding of our nation.
Stanford Health Policy’s Maria Polyakova was one of the first researchers in the nation to find that adjusted excess all-cause mortality during the first year of the pandemic was 6.8 per 10,000 for Black people, compared to 1.5 per 10,000 for white Americans. Her research was the most cited Health Affairs study by congressional staffers in 2021.
Polyakova’s grim findings came as no surprise to Utibe Essien, MD, MPH, a general internist who focuses on racial disparities in the management of chronic diseases and is on a mission to ensure that patients — regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status — have access to the highest quality medications on the market.
“Just as racial and ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus, we also sadly saw that these populations had disproportionate access to the therapies available to treat it,” said Essien. “And so last year, my colleagues and I coined the term ‘pharmacoequity’ to help us examine and explain this phenomenon.”
Essien is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a health disparities researcher in the VA Pittsburgh Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion. He is co-founder of the Clinical Problem Solvers’ Antiracism in Medicine podcast.
He recently addressed a large virtual audience for the inaugural lecture in the Health Equity Lecture Series sponsored by Stanford School of Medicine’s new Department of Health Policy — whose faculty and researchers have a mandate to build a fair and equitable public health system. The lecture series is a flagship event each term that supports the department’s mission of interdisciplinary innovation, discovery, and education to improve health policy.
Stanford Health Policy’s Sherri Rose organizes the Health Equity Lecture Series and is co-chair of the department’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee.
“Changing the unjust equilibriums in our health-care system is critical work toward achieving health equity,” said Rose. “It was inspiring for our audience to hear Dr. Essien share his innovative research in pharmaocoequity as well as his pathbreaking ideas for the future.”
Essien has taken atrial fibrillation as the “model disease” for his research, as there is plenty of data on the world’s most common cardiac arrhythmia. Hypertension, diabetes and obesity are the key drivers behind the rise in A-Fib, a diagnosis carried by some 60 million people worldwide. In turn, patients with A-Fib have a fivefold greater chance of stroke.
Black and Asians patients, however, are less likely to be diagnosed with and treated for an irregular heartbeat — therefore twice as likely to develop and die from stroke than whites, despite there being oral anticoagulants that can reduce stroke by up to 70%.
111,666 patients with A-Fib treated from 2014 to 2018. He found that Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native patients were less likely to receive these life-saving drugs.
In another study published in JAMA Cardiology, Essien found that Black patients were 25% less likely than whites to receive the classic blood thinner warfarin and 37% less likely to be prescribed the newer, more beneficial oral anticoagulants approved by the FDA in 2010.
There are a slew of obstacles preventing Black patients from getting equal medical treatment and quality therapeutics. In the clinical trials for the new A-Fib, only 2.1% of the patients were Black, Essien said. Black patients diagnosed with A-Fib may use Medicare more than white patients, who were more likely to have private insurance. And the new medications, such as Eliquis, Xarelto or Pradaxa, can cost up to $500 a month, an expense many Americans regardless of race cannot afford.
The research using the VA database found that Black patients had about 16% lower odds of being started on any oral anticoagulants than white and Hispanic patients. Those odds dropped to 25% when it came to being started on the new oral anticoagulants.
“Unconscious bias is an issue; we may have certain assumptions about patients that are irrelevant to health care and because of that, we fail to offer them the full breadth of medical treatment,” Essien said. "And that unconscious bias remains today due to a lingering misconception that Black bodies are biologically different than those of whites."
He called on the clinicians attending the lecture to consider whether unconscious bias creeps into their treatment of patients, regardless of race or income.
“Think about the last patient we saw in clinic, a patient who perhaps has been struggling with housing instability over the last few years who has a new diagnosis of atrial fibrillation and you’re thinking, ‘Well, should I prescribe them with a the less expensive warfarin? Should I prescribe them with nothing? Are they going to be able to afford this $500 pill?’”
This bias showed up during the HIV epidemic, he said, when Black patients had 40% lower odds of being prescribed the newly available antiretroviral therapies — and a 70% lower chance of getting prescriptions to prevent one of the most common and severe complications of HIV, a pneumocystis infection within the lungs.
“These findings over 30 years are so important because they really present how persistent the challenge of pharmacoequity has been within our health-care system,” he said.
The ABCs of Solutions: Access, Bias and Costs
Essien pointed out the Affordable Care Act in 2010 reduced the uninsured in this country from 50 million to 20 million individuals, providing consumers with subsidies and expanding the Medicaid program — though not all states have done so.
That still leaves 30 million individuals without health insurance, he said, and many face high retail costs for prescriptions and live in “pharmacy deserts” due to the closures of their local Walgreens, CVS or Rite Aid.
“We have to think about how we improve access to pharmacies for our patients, so it’s not just about whether they have the ability to get a prescription because they have insurance,” Essien said. “But can they physically, geographically access the care that they need?”
Clinicians must also fight bias against Black patients. A 2016 University of Virginia study found that many medical students wrongly believe that African Americans don’t feel pain the same way as whites, due to thicker skin and tougher nerve endings.
“Sadly, a lot of these conversations stemmed from centuries of false beliefs about the differences between Black and white bodies — differences that feed into the algorithms that we use to care for patients,” Essien said.
Finally, Essien said health policy experts must continue to fight for lower drug costs if racial and ethnic minorities are going to gain medical equity. He pointed to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study that found that 80% of Americans think that drug costs are unreasonable.
Essien closed his lecture with a quote by Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist: I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one … and from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
“And this word ‘justice’ is one that I want us to continue to keep in our minds as we pursue pharmacoequity,” he said. “It’s not just a good thing to do — it’s the right thing to do.”