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NIH - Background on Health Disparities

Despite an overall improvement in the health of Americans during the latter part of the 20th century, racial/ethnic groups in the country continued to experience striking health disparities. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian/Pacific Islanders, who represented 25 percent of the U.S. population, faced numerous health disparities, including shorter life expectancy and higher rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, substance abuse, infant mortality, and low birth weight.

Scientists believed that these health disparities resulted from intertwined factors such as biology, the environment, and specific behaviors that were significantly impacted by a shortage of racial and ethnic minority health professionals, discrimination, and inequities in income, education, and access to health care.

The landmark 1985 Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do more to 1) determine why minorities were experiencing an undue burden of diseases, disability, and premature death; and 2) to eliminate health disparities.

In 2000, Congress established the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) to lead, coordinate, support, and assess the NIH effort to eliminate health disparities.  One of the significant outcomes of the legislation was a Strategic Plan and Budget for Eliminating Health Disparities to enhance NIH efforts in 1) research, 2) research infrastructure, and 3) public information and community outreach.  With input from all of NIH's Institutes and Centers (ICs), the NIH released a comprehensive health disparities plan.  The plan raised health disparities to a critical national priority, generating substantial awareness and interest in this important health issue.