Using Technology to Reduce Health Disparities Among Black Men

Black men suffer from some of the worst health disparities in the country. They have a shorter life expectancy than white men by five years, with higher rates of heart disease, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, diabetes, and homicide. They are also much less likely to have health insurance than their white counterparts.

Experts say many black men avoid going to the doctor and seeking treatment due to false assumptions, stereotypes, rampant racism (whether perceived or actualized), and poor experiences in the past. 

We can do better. 

Providers and community leaders need to overcome these obstacles to encourage more black men to participate in the healthcare system.

Texas A&M University health education researcher Ledric Sherman says digital technology could be a part of the solution. Black men may be more inclined to use apps and other digital tools to better manage their health, thus reducing these disparities.

Lack of Progress

The healthcare community has been trying to address these health inequalities for several years, but Sherman says we aren’t seeing the expected gains. From 1900 to 2011, life expectancy rates have gone up for every demographic, but black men continue to lag behind black women, white men, and white women by 6.6, 5.1, and 9.8 years, respectively.

Studies show that black men tend to receive better care when they are treated by a black doctor. This is an effective way to reduce implicit bias and distrust in the doctor-patient relationship.

However, the U.S. has a shortage of black providers. African Americans make up just under 13% of the population, but they make up only 4% of U.S. doctors and less than 7% of U.S. medical students. 

Doctors say they have met many black patients who either delayed or refused treatment because they were skeptical about their physician’s motives and honesty. Some wound up far sicker than they should have been, and others died prematurely.

Having more black doctors in the industry would lead to higher rates of preventative screenings, which would substantially improve the health of the African American community.

How Digital Technology Can Help

Sherman and his colleagues believe we can use mobile health apps, such as mHealth or eHealth, to address these issues. Studies show that an overwhelming majority of black Americans use smartphones, although many of them lack access to traditional computers and laptops.

Providers can use these mobile tools to send and share information with black patients. MHealth has shown to be effective in managing chronic illness, especially diabetes.

For example, instead of having a black man schedule an appointment with a local provider he is uncomfortable with, he can log onto the app and learn about the risks and side effects of diabetes, so he can monitor the condition on his own. Providers and patients can also use smart sensors that go into the person’s socks and shoes to track blood flow, which can help reduce the number of amputations stemming from diabetes.

Black patients can also use wristbands and smart GPS trackers for managing weight loss and obesity, apps for monitoring diet and sugar intake, and internet programs that support healthy living.

Sherman has been tracking the impact of these technologies and how they can help providers reach out to underserved patients. He says these tools can help black men better their own health and help providers reduce health disparities.

Doctors cannot force black men to schedule a wellness checkup, but we can use these tools to make sure black men stay informed, so they can make the right decisions for themselves and their families.

If you are having trouble reaching out to patients of color, consider implementing this kind of approach. Try directing your patients to apps and mobile programs that encourage self-education and personal wellness. Overcoming this sense of distrust among the African American community will take time, but we can all do our part to foster more collaboration.

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