Reducing Health Disparities in Hampton Roads


In Hampton Roads and around the nation, black Americans face a higher risk than the general population of developing and dying from diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Black Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s are more likely to live with or die from health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes that typically occur at older ages in whites. That’s in part because of risk factors such as high blood pressure going unnoticed and untreated.

Hampton Roads is one of the top three hot spots for death from colorectal cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, with black residents at most risk. The reasons involve a complicated mix of disparities inside and outside of the health care system.

Disparities Affect Individuals’ and Communities’ Health

“Factors such as inequitable access to high-quality education, nutritious food, decent and safe housing, affordable and reliable transportation, culturally sensitive health care providers, health insurance and clean air and water all influence individuals’ and communities’ health — in addition to what happens in a medical exam room,” says Traci Massie, director of Government Programs at Optima Health.

While these inequities may seem daunting — and indeed, the work is huge — local health care organizations are taking concrete steps to chip away at disparities so it’s easy for everyone to get good health care.

Currently, in the Hampton Roads region, health plans offer:

  • Culturally-competent health care providers (including medical, dental and vision)
  • Care coordinators hired from the communities they serve
  • Transportation to medical care and pharmacies and smart phones loaded with minutes, to make it easier for low-income individuals to schedule and attend medical appointments
  • Preventative and wellness services, from immunization to smoking cessation and nutrition counseling
  • Behavioral health services, including addiction and recovery treatment for alcohol, illegal drugs and opioids
  • Infant, early childhood and pregnancy programs to address the high infant mortality rate in Norfolk and to provide pregnant and post-partum mothers with support

Optima Health offers all of these services for free to its Medicaid members, as well as non-Medicaid members.)

Partnering For More Care

Additionally, technology provider Unite Us formed a partnership with United Way of South Hampton Roads and Optima Health to create a coordinated care network. This network allows health care providers to easily refer patients to social services organizations when they see a need for support with housing, food, transportation, employment or utilities — and United Way-affiliated social services providers can refer their clients to medical care and track outcomes (with patient permission, of course).

The work isn’t easy, but reducing health disparities moves Virginia closer to the heart of good health.

About the author

Curtis Johnson

Curtis Johnson is marketing and outreach director at Optima Health.

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