New data shows racial disparities in Iowa’s health care system

A new report released by the Iowa Cancer Registry finds that Black Iowans face higher cancer mortality rates and are more likely to develop cancer at younger ages in comparison to White Iowans.


Tate Hildyard

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics are seen on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

A recent report released by the Iowa Cancer Registry, an institute powered by the University of Iowa that tracks cancer in the state, highlighted racial disparities in Iowa’s health care system, finding that Black Iowans experience higher cancer mortality rates and face a greater risk of developing cancer at younger ages when compared to white Iowans.

The report comes as the struggle for racial justice and equity continues both nationwide and locally and provides further evidence of the systemic inequities that persist in various areas of society including health care.

According to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Iowa has the highest Black cancer mortality rate of all 50 states, as well as the greatest discrepancy between cancer mortality rates in white and Black populations.

Director of the Iowa Cancer Registry Mary Charlton, principal investigator of the recent report, said while the report provides valuable insight, there are still many unanswered questions in addressing why racial disparities in cancer patients exist.

“We’re still asking, why do Black women get triple-negative breast cancer more often, which also has the poorest prognosis?” Charlton said. “There’s also still questions around why Black males get prostate cancer at a younger age and why it tends to be a more aggressive type.”

Charlton, an associate professor in the UI’s department of epidemiology, said the report provides evidence of more complex factors driving the issue, since there are no clear genetic factors explaining the inequities.

“There are no differences in the genes of Black people or in the genes of white people,” Charlton said. “It’s just a lot more complicated than that.”

RELATED: ‘Cancer in Iowa’ report paints a mixed picture of state’s progress against the disease

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Nalo Johnson, director for health promotion and chronic disease prevention at the Iowa Department of Public Health, wrote that while no theories or conclusions can be drawn from the data in the report, some existing medical literature suggests that a lack of diversity in health care could play a role in creating such disparities.

“There is a growing amount of medical and public health literature that speaks to the importance of diversification,” Johnson wrote. “Diversification of the healthcare workforce provides the opportunity for providing better care to patients because it helps to address the implicit and explicit bias that providers may exhibit towards their patients.”

Associate Professor of Nursing and Gender, Women’s, and Sexualities Studies Janette Taylor echoed these statements while stressing the role that socioeconomic factors, such as access to health insurance, play in determining health outcomes.

“The disparity is also driven by economics and lack of access,” Taylor said. “I strongly suspect that social determinants of health are driving the inequalities we are seeing in the state of Iowa.”

Taylor said past injustices have also left some members of the Black community mistrustful of the health care establishment, such as researchers’ usage of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without consent in the 1950s.

Taylor added that while the inequities are more profound in Iowa when compared to other states, they are the result of problems that need to be addressed within the greater nationwide system.

“What we are seeing in Iowa is a reflection of the national situation,” Taylor said.