First reported 12/17/2009 5:18 p.m.

Approximately 3200 more black Americans die each year than whites because of growing racial disparities in Chicago’s health care system, according to a new study by West Side-based Sinai Urban Health Institute.

The report was released this afternoon at a press conference at the institute, an affiliate of Mount Sinai Hospital located at 1500 S. California. Researchers looked at the trends of 15 health indicators across the United States from 1990 through 2005.

The study found that, nationally, there has been little to no improvement in the main areas of critical care – the indicators included heart disease mortality, diabetes mortality and female breast cancer mortality. These indicators were compared to trends in Chicago’s health care system, and the study found that the Windy City had actually made even less progress.

“We live in a democracy, and as such, we have a basic duty to provide adequate health care to all of our citizens,” said Steve Whitman, director of the institute and a researcher for the study. “If we can’t do that we cannot call ourselves a democracy.”

Whitman notes that the current report, which will appear in the February 2010 issue of American Journal of Public Health, is a follow-up to a report written in 2004 by the institute. That analysis first highlighted such disparities and also appeared in the health journal, prompting a “call to action” from many in the medical community, according to Whitman.

But despite the attention, the same systemic problem persists.

“Both the department of public health and the Institute of Medicine in Chicago vowed to make strides to improve these disparities, but obviously we still have much work left to do,” Whitman said, who theorizes that the disparity results from racial segregation of the city.

He noted that unemployment affects blacks more than whites, and that plays a role in obtaining health benefits.

“If you are unemployed, there is a greater likelihood you do not have insurance. Consequently, you must either use a Medicaid card, which many doctors and health care institutes do not accept or pay for a coverage, which would be difficult without steady income,” Whitman said. “There are no good options for the underemployed and the unemployed to pay for medical coverage.”

Areas that are predominantly African-American and poor, he added, tend to have less access to adequate health care facilities and a greater likelihood of overcrowding in clinics.

Epidemiologist Jennifer Orsi, chief researcher for the report, found the results highly disheartening. She agreed that Chicago’s segregation has resulted in fewer accessible health care centers in poorer black communities.

“Poorer African-Americans are living in areas where there are few nearby hospitals to access,” she said. “This also means that there will be fewer people employed at jobs that offer insurance and fewer schools to provide residents with the necessary training required to obtain better employment options. It’s just a cycle.”

As to whether the disparities in Chicago are mirrored in the other large metropolitan cities in the country, like New York, Orsi said she didn’t know, as researchers only compared Chicago with the United States as a whole. She is, however, curious to find out.

“Is Chicago just uniquely bad, or is this problem reflective of large cities as a whole? Are smaller towns better or worst” she asked. “I would like to know.

Among the alarming discoveries

  • On a national level, six of the 15 indicators that were studied showed a definite widening of the disparity between blacks and whites, however, in Chicago, researchers found significant growth in the disparities of 11 of 15 categories.
  • In 1990, mortality from all causes was 36 percent higher for blacks than for whites. By 2005, it had widened to 42 percent.
  • Mortality from heart disease was 8 percent 1990, but by 2005, it had increased to 24 percent.
  • Black women were two times more likely to have no prenatal care in the first trimester in 1990. By 2005, it had grown to three times more likely.