Racial, Ethnic Disparities Persist in Access to MS Care

AURORA, Colo. – The access to and quality of multiple sclerosis (MS) care varies substantially depending on a patient’s race, ethnicity, gender, and geography, according to research on patient-reported health inequities presented at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers.

“Equal access to and quality of care are critical for managing a progressive disease such as multiple sclerosis,” said Chris Hardy, of Publicis Health Media, and her associates. “Despite increased awareness of health outcome disparities in the U.S., certain patients still experience inequities in care.”

The researchers sent emails to members of MyMSTeam, an online support network of more than 197,000 members, to request completion of a 34-question online survey. Questions addressed respondents’ ability to access care, resources in their neighborhood, and their interactions with their health care providers. Questions also addressed the burden of MS on individuals’ quality of life, which was considerable across all demographics. The 1,935 patients with MS who responded were overwhelmingly White, though the demographics varied by question.

A ‘widespread and significant problem’

“This study is important in pointing out the unfortunate, obvious [fact] that lack of access and lack of availability to treatment is still a widespread and significant problem in this country,” commented Mark Gudesblatt, MD, a neurologist at South Shore Neurologic Associates who was not involved in the study. “Improving effective treatment of disease requires a more granular understanding of disease impact on a quantitative, multidimensional, objective patient-centric approach,” he added. “Racial and ethnic barriers to effective treatment cannot be allowed nor tolerated. We need to be more acutely aware that outreach, digital health, and remote assessments are tools that we need to incorporate to improve access and do better.”

The pervasive impact of MS

Overall, 85% of respondents reported that MS made it harder to do everyday chores, and 84% said their MS made it harder to exercise and interfered with their everyday life. Similarly high proportions of respondents reported that their MS causes them a lot of stress (80%), makes them feel anxious or depressed (77%), disrupts their work/employment (75%), and interferes with their social life (75%). In addition, more than half said their diagnosis negatively affects their family (59%) and makes them feel judged (53%).

Deanne Power, RN, MSCN, the lead nurse care partner at Octave Bioscience, who spoke as a representative of the study authors, said it’s critical that clinicians be aware of the health inequities that exist among their patient population.

“Some patients have lower income or language issues where English is not their primary language, and they don’t have access and are even afraid to call doctor or reach out [for help],” Ms. Power said. “If providers aren’t actively aware of these situations and talk to their patients, they can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, I just want you to go fill this prescription,’ when they don’t have money to put food on their table. Providers have got to know their patients as [more than] just an MS patient. This is a human being in front of you, and you better know what their life is like, because it’s impacting their MS.”

Access to care varied by race

Among the 1,906 respondents who answered questions about access to care, 9% were Black, 5% were Hispanic, and the rest were White. In these questions, differences between demographics arose when it came to individuals’ ability to conveniently see an MS specialist and their subsequent use of emergency services. For example, only 64% of Hispanic respondents reported convenient access to a health care provider specializing in MS, compared with 76% of White and 78% of Black respondents.

A significantly higher proportion of Hispanics also reported that they could not take time off from work when they were sick (25%) or to attend a doctor appointment (20%), compared with White (15% and 9%, respectively) and Black (18% and 12%) respondents. Meanwhile, a significantly higher proportion of Hispanics (35%) reported visiting the emergency department in the past year for MS-related issues, compared with White (19%) or Black (25%) respondents.

White respondents consistently had greater convenient access to dental offices, healthy foods, outpatient care, gyms, and parks and trails, compared with Black and Hispanic patients’ access. For example, 85% of White patients had convenient access to dental offices and 72% had access to outpatient care, compared with Black (74% and 65%) and Hispanic (78% and 52%) patients. Two-thirds of Hispanic respondents (67%) reported access to healthy foods and to gyms, parks, or trails, compared with more than three-quarters of both White and Black patients.

Other barriers to MS care

Both racial/ethnic and gender disparities emerged in how patients felt treated by their health care providers. Men were significantly more likely (70%) than women (65%) to say their health care provider listens to and understands them. A statistically significant higher proportion of men (71%) also said their clinician explained their MS test results to them, compared with women (62%), and only 28% of women, versus 37% of men, said their provider developed a long-term plan for them.

Anne Foelsch, the vice president of strategic partnerships at MyHealthTeam, who works with the authors, noted the large discrepancy that was seen particularly for Hispanic patients in terms of how they felt treated by their health care provider.

“Doctors might perceive that the relationship is the same with all of their patients when their patients have a very different perception of what that relationship is and whether they’re not being heard,” Ms. Foelsch said. “It’s important that clinicians take a little bit of time and learn a little bit more about a patient’s perspective and what it’s like when they have a chronic condition like MS and how it impacts their life, looking for those nuances that are different based on your ethnicity.”

Just over half of Hispanic patients (54%) said their provider explained their MS test results, compared with nearly two-thirds of White patients (65%) and 61% of Black patients. Hispanic patients were also less likely (55%) to say they felt their provider listens to and understands them than White (67%) or Black (65%) patients. Two-thirds of White respondents (67%) said their doctor recommended regular check-ups, compared with just over half of Black and Hispanic respondents (55%).

Other statistically significant disparities by race/ethnicity, where a higher proportion of White patients responded affirmatively than Black or Hispanic patients, included feeling treated with respect by their health care provider, feeling their provider is nonjudgmental, and saying their provider spends enough time with them, addresses their MS symptoms, and encourages shared decision-making.

“This study nicely documents and points out that despite our best intentions, we need to do much better as a community to help those with chronic and potentially disabling diseases like MS,” Dr. Gudesblatt said. “The racial, ethnic, and gender disparities only result in greater disability and societal costs by those who can least afford it. All therapies fail due to nonadherence, limited access, lack of insurance coverage, limited insurance coverage, high copays, long waits, cultural biases, and more.”

The researchers acknowledged that their survey respondents may not be representative of all patients with MS because the survey relied on those who chose to respond to the online survey.

The study authors were all employees of Publicis Health Media or MyHealthTeam. Dr. Gudesblatt reported no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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