April marks National Minority Health Month, a time to raise awareness about health disparities that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States. The observance traces its roots back to 1915, when Booker T. Washington, an influential African American educator, and author, first proposed the idea of “National Negro Health Week.” Today, National Minority Health Month serves as an opportunity to reflect on progress made in improving the health of minority communities, as well as to identify and address ongoing challenges.
Dr. Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama in 1881. He believed that education and economic opportunity were key to achieving equality for Black Americans, but he also recognized the critical importance of good health. In 1915, he proposed the observance of “National Negro Health Week,” which was later expanded to become National Minority Health Month.
Washington understood that poor health was a major barrier to progress and equity for Black Americans, who at the time were more likely to suffer from infectious diseases, malnutrition, and poor living conditions. He saw the need for public health campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of hygiene, sanitation, and preventative care, and he called on churches, schools, and community organizations to take an active role in promoting health.
Over the past century, significant progress has been made in improving the health of minority communities, but persistent disparities remain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), racial and ethnic minority groups continue to experience higher rates of illness and death from a variety of health conditions compared to non-Hispanic whites.
For example, African Americans have higher rates of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as lower rates of physical activity and healthy eating. Hispanic Americans are more likely to experience obesity and certain types of cancer, such as liver and stomach cancer. American Indians and Alaska Natives have higher rates of substance abuse, suicide, and unintentional injuries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted longstanding health disparities, with Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities experiencing higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death. These disparities are due to a complex interplay of social, economic, and environmental factors, including poverty, limited access to healthcare, discrimination, and structural racism.
To address these disparities, organizations, and communities across the country are taking action during National Minority Health Month and throughout the year. The Office of Minority Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leads efforts to improve the health of minority communities by promoting health equity and eliminating health disparities. The agency works with partners to develop and implement programs that address the unique health needs of racial and ethnic minorities, including initiatives focused on improving access to healthcare, increasing health literacy, and addressing social determinants of health.
Local organizations and community groups are also working to promote health equity and reduce disparities. For example, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a national nonprofit organization, advocates for policies and programs that improve the health of Black women and girls, who face some of the highest rates of chronic disease and maternal mortality in the country. The organization provides resources and support to help Black women take charge of their health and wellness.
Another example is the Latino Health Initiative, which works to promote health equity for Hispanic residents of Montgomery County, Maryland. The initiative provides culturally and linguistically appropriate healthcare services, as well as education and outreach to increase health literacy and access to preventive care.
National Minority Health Month is also a time to celebrate the achievements of minority health advocates and researchers who have made significant contributions to the field. One such figure is Dr. David Satcher, who served as Surgeon General under Presidents