Racial Health-Care Gap Closing

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The stubborn gap between medical care for blacks and whites in the United States may finally be tightening.

Three large federally backed studies suggest that blacks are catching up to whites in many simple, cheap medical treatments. However, disparities persist for complex and costly procedures, and further progress may be harder to achieve.

"Things that are simpler and less expensive ... are easier fixes," said Dr. Ashish Jha of the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts. He said broad equality probably won't be reached "by small tinkering with the system."

Jha led one of the three studies published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The studies offer some of the first evidence that racial disparities in U.S. health care have narrowed, at least for some patients and treatments.

Since the 1980s, many studies have documented racial gaps in health care standards, blaming economic, cultural and even biological differences between races.

Blacks have less access to better doctors, hospitals and health plans, and the medical system treats whites and blacks differently, even when they are the same in nearly every way, research has indicated.

The new studies, examining only those two races, took into account differences such as health plans, hospitals, regions and wealth, and compared the 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.