As we observe African American History Month—also known as Black History Month—it is important to celebrate the gains and improvements to African American health and access in the last few decades. Many Black Americans have overcome challenging obstacles to improve their health and positively impact the wellbeing of generations to come. 

Improvements in overall life expectancy  

The death rate for African Americans has declined about 25% over the past 17 years, per data collected by the CDC and the life expectancy of an African American born in 2017 is now more than 75 years. These steady gains have been partly attributed to the 1967 passage and implementation of Medicare and Medicaid as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made healthcare more accessible to many Black Americans and began to desegregate healthcare. The 65 and older Medicare population saw the most significant gains. 

Some causes of death have decreased dramatically

Smoking rates for African Americans have declined more quickly than those for white Americans, leading to significantly lower rates of lung cancer. Black men have seen the most gains, cutting lung cancer rates by nearly 50% between 1990 and 2013. Since lung cancer is one of the most deadly cancers, these have also contributed to the increase in overall African American health and life expectancy. Suicide, HIV death rates, homicide and infant mortality rates have also declined significantly, all helping to boost life spans. 

Culturally sensitive care is becoming more common

Though there is still a long way to go, the medical establishment continues to try to become more culturally sensitive to the unique needs of African Americans and other minority populations. This is of vital importance, as the relationship between practitioner and patient is one of the most important aspects of offering quality care. More and more medical professionals are engaging with culturally sensitive training programs that help them to establish better relationships with all their patients, including African Americans. Also, the medical profession in general is becoming more diverse with more ethnically diverse practitioners than ever before.

More African Americans have Access to Preventative Care

Several government programs—including the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid—have improved access to preventive care for many African Americans. Services that are now no-fee for Medicare beneficiaries include mammograms for women, blood pressure screenings, flu shots, cholesterol screenings and diabetes screenings. The benefits of these programs are clear as rates of mammograms for black women increases when they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. Diagnosing conditions that are more prevalent in the African American population—including high blood pressure and diabetes—leads to better outcomes and longer lives. 

More African Americans are going into medicine

One silver lining of the pandemic hitting minority populations especially hard is more African Americans showing interest and applying to medical school. Texas Tech University reported a 43% jump in African American applicants this year. Administrators trying to encourage more diversity are trying to address the hurdles faced by many of these potentially first generation physicians by including providing financial support and role models. Currently Black Americans are underrepresented, with only about 5% of physicians currently identifying as African American or black, while 13% of the overall population identifies as black.

What are you doing to observe African American History month and help to support diversity and health in your community?