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Does Race and Ethnicity Matter When It Comes to Health?

Race and Ethnicity in Health

Demographic shifts, or changes in socioeconomic characteristics, serve as the underpinnings of health disparities among racial and ethnic groups. Race is defined as biological variations based on genetic or inherited physical characteristics such as hair, eye and skin color, hair texture, facial features and disease susceptibility. Ethnicity is used to identify shared or common distinctions among a group of people such as religion, language and culture.

Health determinants among racial and ethnic groups are influenced by inequities or differences associated with behavioral and environmental risk factors, and access to health resources. Over time, these inequities lead to differences in health consequences, and eventually, health disparities. Health disparities are differences in the rates by which negative health outcomes occur. Therefore, race and ethnicity matter when it comes to health.

Master of Public Health (MPH) programs offer academic degrees in primary areas of public health beyond the baccalaureate level. Primary areas of public health, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, social and behavioral science, health administration and environmental health, equip students with the skills needed to improve health and well-being while creating healthy communities.

Addressing Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Although several public health interventions and practices have been implemented to improve health, racial and ethnic minorities continue to experience health inequities linked to demographics shifts and lower socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is a measure of an individual's social, work and economic status. Higher levels of education influence job placement, wages and income, and access to healthcare resources. Barriers associated with lower SES increases the likelihood of experiencing negative health outcomes and health disparities among racial and ethnic group.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disparities in income and education are greatest among Hispanics, non-Hispanic blacks and American Indians/Alaska natives. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to live in poverty compared to whites. Subsequently, health disparities occur more often among racial and ethnic groups.

Minority Groups More Often Inflicted with Chronic Diseases

Racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to suffer poor health outcomes; blacks experience higher rates of chronic health issues such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, infant mortality rates, HIV transmission rates and rates of obesity are substantially larger among blacks. Rates of diabetes are also higher among blacks, yet Native Americans are more likely to have diabetes compared to all other racial and ethnic groups. Native Americans also suffer from higher rates of mental disorders compared to other groups, and are more likely to succumb to suicide at rates twice as high as the national average. No group is immune to cancer; non-Hispanic whites are more likely to be diagnosed with certain types of cancer. However, non-Hispanic black women experience higher breast cancer mortality rates and Hispanic women are less likely to be screened for cervical and breast cancer. Hispanic women are also less likely to be screened for cervical cancer. Asian Americans have the highest the rates of chronic Hepatitis B and tuberculosis of any ethnic group.

Social Economic Status Affects Access to Healthcare

Health disparities are differences in health status based on social and economic disadvantages. The differences are often the results of varying SES and serve as the underpinnings of negative health outcomes among ethnic and racial groups. Racial and ethnic groups are more likely to experience health inequities related to limited access to health-related resources, lower income earnings and social and environmental factors. Despite advances made in the field of public health to reduce health disparities, inequities in health outcomes still exist based on racial and ethnic categorization. Therefore, it remains necessary to cover topics of race and ethnicity in MPH programs to reduce negative health consequences while developing healthy communities.

Learn more about the University of South Carolina’s online MPH program.


Racial and Ethnic Disparities in US Health Care: A Chartbook, The Commonwealth Fund. Retrieved from:

Social Determinants of Health: Definitions, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:

Social Determinants of Health: Key Concepts, World Health Organization. Retrieved from:

Suicide Facts at a Glance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:

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