DHEC aims to tackle ‘concerning’ health disparities in formulating five-year state plan

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Published: Oct. 25, 2022 at 6:33 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina health leaders say with the pandemic now moving to the endemic stage, the time has arrived to revitalize other priorities to improve South Carolinians’ health.

For the last several months, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has been collecting and analyzing mountains of statewide health data.

They presented their findings Tuesday to other members of the healthcare community, including doctors, nurses, hospital leaders, and representatives from Medicaid and private insurers.

In the coming months, they will take the input they receive from those groups and use the data to formula the state’s five-year health improvement plan that begins in 2024.

“It’s been five years almost since we did that, and so it’s time to update it,” DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said.

On Tuesday, posterboards covered with graphs, charts, and statistics filled a large conference room at the Pastides Alumni Center in Columbia, and groups moved from board to board, taking in the data DHEC had collected.

What Traxler said was most striking was how many disparities in health outcomes exist right now across the state.

They include differences between genders, sexes, rural and urban counties, and even in life expectancy from one zip code to the next — in some cases, the average dropping more than 10 years in moving between neighboring zip codes.

But Traxler said disparities were mainly between races and ethnic groups.

“We firmly believe that every South Carolinian should have the opportunity to achieve their best health possible,” she said.

Traxler said some of the findings especially worrying them concern maternal and infant mortality rates.

South Carolina’s average maternal mortality rate, of 36.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, is significantly higher than the state’s 2030 goal of 15.7.

But the rate of Black moms dying in the state, 55.8, is more than double what it is for white moms, 26.4.

A similar disparity applies to infant mortality.

State data from 2020 shows non-Hispanic Black babies are dying at much higher rates — 11.4 deaths per 100,000 live births — than Hispanic/Latino babies (3.8) and non-Hispanic white babies (4.4).

“I don’t know anyone in the state that doesn’t want healthy moms and babies,” Traxler said. “We are making some improvements, for example, in infant mortality overall, but the disparity is worsening.”

South Carolina is nearing the end of its current five-year health plan, which closes in 2023 and which took some detours because of COVID.

But Traxler said the pandemic did show DHEC is able to tackle health disparities, pointing toward how they responded after white South Carolinians were getting vaccinated at much higher rates early on in the rollout.

“We focused then, our efforts on doing outreach and communications and increasing access for Blacks and for Hispanics, and so we saw those vaccination rates catch up to whites and sometimes even surpass them,” she said.

DHEC aims to have the next five-year state health improvement plan published by the spring of 2024, according to Traxler.

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