The findings from three large, federally funded studies indicate it's possible to equalize health care between races, but it won't happen quickly or easily.
"Things that are simpler and less expensive ... are easier fixes," said Dr. Ashish Jha, of the Harvard School of Public Health. He said more progress probably won't happen "by small tinkering with the system."
He led one of the three studies published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The research offers some of the first evidence that racial disparities have narrowed, at least for some patients and treatments.
Since the 1980s, many studies have documented racial gaps in the standard of health care. They are blamed on economic, cultural and even biological differences between races. Blacks have less access to better doctors, hospitals and health plans, studies indicate.
Research also shows that the medical system treats whites and blacks differently, even when they are the same in nearly every way. Examining only those two races, the new studies took into account differences like health plans, hospitals, regions and wealth.
The researchers mostly compared treatment of whites and blacks by assessing how often accepted professional standards were met for each group. In the study finding the most equality, Harvard researchers analyzed records from 1.5 million patients in 183 Medicare managed-care plans between 1997 and 2003.
They found narrowed racial gaps for mammograms and diabetics' eye exams, blood-sugar tests, and testing and control of diabetics' cholesterol. Gaps were also reduced for prescribing beta-blocker heart drugs and cholesterol testing after heart attacks.
The most dramatic improvement came for beta blockers. By the end of the study, 93 percent of blacks met standards, compared to 94 percent of whites, an improvement of 11 percentage points for blacks.