How Atlanta is failing to uphold MLK's healthcare justice

Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his hometown of Atlanta — and many cities across the U.S. — are struggling to meet his vision of equality in healthcare, NPR reports.

In 1966, Dr. King said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhuman." And, according to public health officials, not much has changed.

"We have world-class healthcare facilities in Atlanta, but the challenge is that we're still seeing worse outcomes" for African-Americans, Kathryn Lawler, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement, told NPR. For example, in parts of Atlanta, there is a 12 year or more difference in lifespan between those who live in predominantly black communities and those in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.

Atlanta was at the heart of the civil rights movement, but after accomplishing key milestones — like desegregation — the city never kept the momentum, said Tom Andrews, president of Atlanta-based Mercy Care, a health center that serves many of the city's homeless, the vast majority of whom are African American.

Although Atlanta spends nearly $11 billion on healthcare annually, the health gaps between African Americans and whites stem primarily from decades of discrimination.

"It's a constellation of things," said Thomas LaVeist, PhD, chairman of the department of health policy and management at Washington, D.C.-based George Washington University's school of public health. "African-Americans couldn't own land, wealth couldn't transfer from one generation to the next. Those were advantages [for whites] that were formed decades ago."

He adds, "The disparities are really national problems, and there really is not a city that's spared."

This discrimination has caused African Americans to earn lower incomes, receive lower levels of education, suffer higher stress, live in unsafe neighborhoods and lack insurance — all of which amounts to differences in quality of health. For example, Atlanta has the widest gap in breast cancer mortality rates between African American women and white women with 44 black patients per 100,000 residents dying compared with 20 per 100,000 white women.

While the U.S. public health sector is working to narrow the gaps, the onus is not on the healthcare system alone. "All sectors of the community that address social, economic and environmental factors that influence health" must take responsibility, Kathleen Toomey, district health director for the Fulton County Board of Health, told NPR.

Click here to read the full NPR report.

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