As efforts continue to improve quality and reduce healthcare costs in the U.S., evidence shows that racial and ethnic health disparities have a significant negative impact. According to a report from the Commonwealth Fund, “Black and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) people live fewer years, on average, than white people.” They are more likely to die from treatable conditions, to die during or after pregnancy and suffer serious pregnancy-related complications, and to lose children in infancy. Black and AIAN populations are also at higher risk for many chronic health conditions, ranging from diabetes to hypertension.
The harsh reality of these health disparities was revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people of color. Black, Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S. have significantly higher infection rates, hospitalization, and death compared to white populations.
The effect on the cost of healthcare is substantial. A recent Texas study showed that over the last six years, racial and ethnic health disparities in the state have resulted in $2.7 billion in excess medical spending and $5 billion in lost productivity.
An important step to reducing disparities is efficiently collecting race and ethnicity data. This has proven to be a difficult task due to:
- The lack of standardized race and ethnicity categories
- Incomplete forms used to collect the data
- Electronic health records built without the ability to collect the information
- Discomfort of healthcare staff asking for information
- Few detailed descriptions for patients to accurately self-identify
- Patients may be reluctant to share this kind of information
Additionally, social determinants of health (SDOH) have proven to be a significant source of disparity among racial and ethnic minorities. Using quality tools as a method for collecting data and advancing health equity has great potential to address the deeply rooted issues of SDOH. While some improvement has occurred, more work is needed.
National Committee for Quality Assurance Strategies
The National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) compiles the Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS). This provides quality results annually for more than 203 million people and 60 percent of the U.S. population.
NCQA introduced a racial/diversity measure in 2015. But health plans struggled to obtain the needed data through member self-reporting, disease registries and other traditional means. NCQA’s 2019 records showed that approximately 76 percent of racial data and 94 percent of ethnicity data were incomplete for the commercial product line. Medicare plans demonstrated higher collection rates: 26 percent of racial data and 60 percent of ethnicity data is incomplete.
The lack of completeness raised concerns about relying on traditional sources to accurately measure disparities in care. Without reliable data, identifying those with unmet needs is difficult.
Improving Data Collection
To increase collection of data from health plans, NCQA began requiring stratifications by race and ethnicity in 2021.
NCQA started with five measures across key known disparities: colorectal cancer screening, controlling blood pressure, hemoglobin A1c control for patients with diabetes, prenatal and postpartum care, and child and adolescent well care visits.
Race and ethnicity data on these measures help plans better understand member needs and provide services to address those needs. Plans can measure and track performance on disparities and implement data-driven approaches to close care gaps and improve outcomes in vulnerable communities, especially related to SDOH.
Some plans are already working to close equity gaps. Centene Corporation was recently awarded the Innovation Award for Health Equity by NCQA. They implemented a data-driven approach focused on community disparities within markets. Improvements were seen in colorectal cancer screening rates for American Indian/Alaska Native members, increased rates of immunizations for Latino children and better maternal outcomes among Black mothers.
Help is available to health plans seeking ways to reduce disparities of care among their membership. Vatica Health, for example, provides technology and dedicated clinicians to enable providers to efficiently capture more accurate and complete diagnostic coding and documentation for risk adjustment and improving quality of care. As part of this process, Vatica can collect race and ethnicity information using CDC specifications for the measures designated by NCQA. This helps Vatica clients meet NCQA requirements and collect the data needed to identify and reduce disparity gaps in care.
High quality, affordable healthcare for all isn’t possible without addressing disparities in our current system. Collecting race and ethnicity data is the first step toward developing effective solutions to address this complex challenge. While this is not a simple task, actions by NCQA and other stakeholders show potential. Collecting and using race and ethnicity data to identify disparities and factors that drive them is critical to achieving better healthcare for everyone.
About Vatica Health
Vatica Health deploys clinical nurses at the point of care, armed with powerful technology. Vatica’s solution accelerates the transformation to value-based care by helping providers, health plans, and patients work together to achieve better outcomes. Visit https://vaticahealth.com/ to learn more.