Disparities in Access to Health Care

Reasons for disparities in access to health care are many, but can include the following:

  • Lack of insurance coverage. Without health insurance, patients are more likely to postpone medical care, more likely to go without needed medical care, and more likely to go without prescription medicines. Minority groups in the United States lack insurance coverage at higher rates than whites.
  • Lack of a regular source of care. Without access to a regular source of care, patients have greater difficulty obtaining care, fewer doctor visits, and more difficulty obtaining prescription drugs. Compared to whites, minority groups in the United States are less likely to have a doctor they go to on a regular basis and are more likely to use emergency rooms and clinics as their regular source of care.
  • Lack of financial resources. Although the lack of financial resources is a barrier to health care access for many Americans, the impact on access appears to be greater for minority populations.
  • Legal barriers. Access to medical care by low-income immigrant minorities can be hindered by legal barriers to public insurance programs. For example, in the United States federal law bars states from providing Medicaid coverage to immigrants who have been in the country fewer than five years.
  • Structural barriers. These barriers include poor transportation, an inability to schedule appointments quickly or during convenient hours, and excessive time spent in the waiting room, all of which affect a person's ability and willingness to obtain needed care.
  • The health care financing system. The Institute of Medicine in the United States says fragmentation of the U.S. health care delivery and financing system is a barrier to accessing care. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be enrolled in health insurance plans which place limits on covered services and offer a limited number of health care providers.
  • Scarcity of providers. In inner cities, rural areas, and communities with high concentrations of minority populations, access to medical care can be limited due to the scarcity of primary care practitioners, specialists, and diagnostic facilities.
  • Linguistic barriers. Language differences restrict access to medical care for minorities in the United States who are not English-proficient.
  • Health literacy. This is where patients have problems obtaining, processing, and understanding basic health information. For example, patients with a poor understanding of good health may not know when it is necessary to seek care for certain symptoms. While problems with health literacy are not limited to minority groups, the problem can be more pronounced in these groups than in whites due to socioeconomic and educational factors.
  • Lack of diversity in the health care workforce. A major reason for disparities in access to care are the cultural differences between predominantly white health care providers and minority patients. Only 4% of physicians in the United States are African American, and Hispanics represent just 5%, even though these percentages are much less than their groups' proportion of the United States population.
  • Age. Age can also be a factor in health disparities for a number of reasons. As many older Americans exist on fixed incomes which may make paying for health care expenses difficult. Additionally, they may face other barriers such as impaired mobility or lack of transportation which make accessing health care services challenging for them physically. Also, they may not have the opportunity to access health information via the internet as less than 15% of Americans over the age of 65 have access to the internet. This could put older individuals at a disadvantage in terms of accessing valuable information about their health and how to protect it.

Further Reading


This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article on "Health disparities" All material adapted used from Wikipedia is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Wikipedia® itself is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011

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