Alaska News

Groundbreaking report sheds light on health disparities experienced by Black Alaskans

A new far-reaching report finds that Black Alaskans suffer higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, certain types of cancer, kidney failure and more severe illness from COVID-19 than residents of other races.

The report’s findings, published by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Social Work, are based on nearly 700 survey responses from Black Alaskans around the state as well as focus groups and publicly available federal and state health data.

The data mirrors national trends, which have long revealed persistent health inequities in the United States based on race, among other factors. Social determinants of health — such as poverty, unequal access to health care, lack of education, stigma and racism — are linked to health disparities, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Along with reporting higher rates of certain health problems, many of the Black Alaskans who responded to the survey also said they experienced bias or discrimination from medical professionals.

The Alaska Black Caucus, a community-based advocacy group, commissioned the report to help identify areas that could be targeted to improve the health of Alaska’s Black residents, who make up a little over 3% of the state’s population but for whom limited health data exists.

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The report is the first of its kind to focus specifically on Black Alaskans, according to Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus. It was unveiled last week at a public presentation held at UAA.

“Other assessments don’t really include us,” Hodge Growden said at last week’s event. “And now we have an assessment of Black health. That’s incredible.”

Celeste Hodge Growden, covid-19 vaccine, Alaska Black Caucus

A number of audience members described firsthand experiences with doctors or nurses who seemed dismissive of their health concerns, made untrue assumptions or otherwise seemed biased in the way they delivered care.

Ty Roberts, an Anchorage doula, said she thinks representation in health care makes a difference — that being cared for by a medical professional who looks like you can be a validating and empowering experience for many of the Black women she works with.

”I always get the comment, ‘I didn’t know there was somebody like me out there who could help me,’” Roberts said. “And so now I’m realizing how much representation does matter, just to be in a place where there aren’t implicit biases.”

The report found Black Alaskans had a higher likelihood of death from cancer, specifically of the female reproductive system, in comparison to other races and ethnicities. The rate of infant deaths due to complications while the baby is developing or complications during labor or delivery was also highest for Black Alaskans compared to all other races.

It found that overall, Black people suffer at a disproportionately higher rate from kidney failure — up to three times higher than white people — and are more likely to die younger.

They are also 20 times more likely to report experiencing psychological distress, “yet are over 50% less likely to receive counseling or mental health treatment,” the report said.

And though 83% of respondents said they have some form of health insurance, more than half also said cost was prohibitive to getting the care they needed, or that no appointments were available.

Much of the data presented in the report echoed national trends and disparities. Data from the CDC, for example, show that the maternal death rate among Black women in the U.S. is more than twice the rate of white women. Black men experience higher rates of high blood pressure than white men do. And the number of uninsured Black Americans is far higher than white Americans, at nearly 15% compared to about 9%.

The researchers involved in producing the Alaska report say their goal is to inform and help find potential solutions to health challenges facing the Black community.

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They noted a preexisting absence of race-related health data focused on Alaska — particularly COVID-19 data — which made it more difficult to assess trends. In Alaska’s coronavirus data, nearly a third of all cases are reported as race unknown or multiple races, making it hard to determine the effect of the virus on specific populations.

That absence was one of the reasons researchers wanted to get more data, said Amana Mbise, an assistant professor with the UAA School of Social Work.

The report found that “Blacks/African Americans experience greater and more severe (COVID-19) illnesses and death than their white counterparts” in Alaska.

Mbise also drew attention to more encouraging data points, including the fact that the suicide rate for Alaska’s Black community is lower than rates for other races.

It’s important to try to understand why there were higher rates of mental health problems reported but lower rates of suicide — what protective factors existed and how to continue to strengthen those support networks, he said. “We want to understand not only understand the the needs, but also the strengths.”

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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