Understanding Health Care Disparities & Obesity

Understanding Health Care Disparities & Obesity

More than 60% of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. Those odds mean that you as a health care professional are increasingly likely to have patients who fall into those categories.

Many general health care organizations in the United States recognize obesity in particular as a pressing health challenge for the country. These organizations also recognize that much of what affects the issue is related to health care disparities related to race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the stigma toward people who are obese.

Here’s what health care professionals and our patients need to understand about the health care disparities that affect people in regards to their weight.

How Health Disparities Affect Weight

There are certain patient demographics that are more likely to be obese or overweight due to a variety of health disparities. On top of that, people who are obese and overweight face stigma and biases from health care providers that further impact their wellbeing. 

Below are brief overviews of how weight and health disparities are intertwined. 

Weight and Ethnicity

In the United States, you’ll find that weight disparities and race and ethnic disparities are closely related to one another. In order to understand one, it’s necessary to understand how one affects the other. 

African Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Latinos are much more likely to be overweight or obese. These minority population groups are more often than others to be in lower socioeconomic classes or in environments that put them at a disadvantage in regularly accessing healthy foods that suit their health concerns. 

Even if they may use federal programs to help afford food, the types of foods they have access to might not be the best for their health. For example, dairy products are commonly subsidized by federal food programs, but non-dairy substitutes are not. However, African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asians are predominately lactose intolerant. 

People in lower socioeconomic classes also often tend to live in areas where getting access to fresh, affordable, healthy food options is very uncommon or nonexistent. These food deserts are more commonly found in Black and brown communities than in their white counterparts.

Race and weight are inextricably intertwined in the United States. There are many racial factors that affect obesity rates, and understanding how they work in tandem can help you to identify patients at risk and better empathize with them.

Weight and Gender

Weight can also be closely tied to a patient’s gender. Women generally have more body fat than men, and a variety of socioeconomic reasons and behaviors also come into play. But overall, obesity levels for men and women are more or less within similar ranges, although women have reportedly higher rates of severe obesity

Race is where the difference is particularly noticeable. In different minority populations, women are far more likely to be affected by obesity than their white counterparts or men. As an example, 10.3% of African American women are extremely obese while only 6.2% of white women are.

On the other hand, obesity is almost three times more deadly for men. It’s not entirely clear why, but it’s likely because men are more likely to have increased negative traits, like a greater insulin resistance, levels of liver fat, and a risk for getting diabetes compared to women. 

Just like with race and ethnicity, tracking obesity rates based on a patient’s gender has also proven to shine a light on where health disparities exist. But there is still a long way to go to fully understand the situation and work to remedy it.

Access to Treatments and Resources

People with obesity face weight bias in accessing health care. This in particular has to do with how some health care professionals treat obese patients and how these patients fear medical staff might treat them.

Some medical professionals view obese patients as simply lacking the willpower to lose weight. Others might not know how to be sensitive in comments or appropriately acknowledge and address the patient’s health concerns. 

When an overweight or obese person seeks medical care, some report their concerns or symptoms were dismissed as being a result of their weight or that their weight and losing weight became the focus rather than the complaint they came to see a physician for in the first place. Others avoid seeking out medical care in the first place, afraid of judgment or insensitive comments from health care providers. 

Because of these experiences, not only do these patients often get misdiagnosed or receive inadequate treatment, but they also become less likely to seek out medical care for future concerns. 

Health Concerns 

Obesity raises the risk of other physical health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Obese patients are less likely to seek preventative care, putting them at higher risk for preventative diseases. 

In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also been listed as a common comorbidity that’s tied to severe COVID-19 outcomes. People who are obese are more likely to get the coronavirus, be hospitalized, and die from this disease. 

These health outcomes are not ones that any of our patients want for themselves or the people they care about. As you care for patients who are overweight or obese, make it a point to understand the many factors that could be affecting them and their weight. 

Just as with any other factor in a person’s life and health, treat all patients with sensitivity and an effort to listen and understand, regardless of what they look like. 

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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