Driving Health Equality: It Starts with the Data

The authors of the aptly titled Health Affairs article, Race and Ethnicity Must Be Included in Employee Health Data Analyses, highlight the importance of data collection in our nation’s efforts to improve health inequities. “Ultimately, for organizations to identify and eliminate gaps in their programs, ensure equitable quality care, and address health disparities, the collection of employee health data by race and ethnicity must be improved.” We couldn’t agree more. And, while we know collecting this data is difficult, it’s not impossible.

We created our Multicultural Healthcare Distinction (MHC) program more than a decade ago to move the industry in this direction. Organizations with NCQA MHC Distinction have shown that they:

  • Collect data on race, ethnicity and language of individuals and network practitioners.
  • Have programs for improving culturally and linguistically appropriate services.
  • Assess and improve those programs.
  • Actively assess and address disparities.
  • Adjust their networks to meet the membership’s cultural profile.
  • Provide language support to individuals and PCPs.

Demonstrating an ability to collect, assess and act on health disparities can be done. However, only 69 plans spanning the commercial, Exchange, Medicaid and Medicare markets have earned MHC Distinction. Only 4 organizations in the commercial market have earned it! What’s more, only 11% of organizations in that market collect race and ethnicity data for their entire population. The majority—75%, to be exact—have collected it for less than half. How can we fix inequities if we can’t identify them?

As a country, we must do better. Health plans and providers need to find ways to collect race, ethnicity and language data. And purchasers, both public and private, may need to give them a reason to do it. Here are a few questions (borrowed from NCQA’s own programs) employers might want to ask their health care vendors:

  • For what portion of your population do you have data on race, ethnicity and social determinants of health?
  • What efforts are you making to stratify health care and patient experience data by race and ethnicity to uncover potential disparities?
  • How do you ensure that plan/program communications and services are culturally appropriate, understood and effective?
  • What strategies are you implementing to reduce disparities?

Collecting race and ethnicity data is pivotal to improving health disparities. Progressive organizations have not only prioritized it, they’ve shown us it is possible. But we still have a long way to go.