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Understanding what’s behind health disparities among Tennessee children

Understanding what’s behind health disparities among Tennessee children

Picture of Sarah Macaraeg

Every year, more than 3,500 kids who are having difficulty breathing enter the doors of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. When they leave, it is with the institution’s most common diagnosis: pediatric asthma. 

According to the hospital, 40 percent of its patients are seen primarily in relation to the chronic and, at times, deadly illness. Children who come by way of ambulance with partially collapsed lungs have been among them in recent years, staying for days or weeks on end in intensive care unit treatment.

For at least 20 years, the rate of pediatric asthma hospitalizations in Memphis, compared to the rest of Tennessee, has been disproportionate to a substantial degree. And in comparison to cities across the country, Memphis was ranked 6th for its rate of asthma prevalence and 8th in deaths due to asthma in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation’s most recent Asthma Capitals report.

To do its part in addressing the crisis, the local medical community has launched a pair of innovative strategies in recent years. One program provides comprehensive care to high-risk patients on government insurance. The other program entails a partnership between medical professionals and housing agencies that has alleviated indoor triggers of acute symptoms for some families. 

But in regards to public health, environmental justice and prevention, we have yet to understand what causes a disproportionate number of asthma diagnoses and severe symptoms among Memphis children.

More than a quarter million youth are listed as below 18 in the 2018 American Community Survey statistics for Shelby County, which is comprised in vast part by the city of Memphis. Looking at rates of poverty among those under 18 by race, University of Memphis researchers recently reported that 47.6 percent of Black children and 30.7 percent of Hispanic children in the county live in poverty.

Differences in exposure, prevalence and need among distinct groups will inform my 2019 Data Fellowship project’s analysis of the childhood asthma problem in Memphis —and its potential solutions. While comparing hospital discharge data among various regions, I’ll also be measuring factors at play in Memphis that do not similarly exist in other regions. Representing a range of backgrounds, the stories of families attempting to control their children’s asthma will accompany the data analysis.

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The pandemic has thrown into brutal relief the extent to which the U.S. health care system produces worse outcomes for patients of color. And yet there has been scant focus on one of the biggest drivers of structural racism in health care: How doctors and hospitals are paid. In this webinar, we’ll highlight the ways in which the health care system’s focus on money and good grades is shortchanging the health of communities of color. Sign-up here!

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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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