Asian Population Health Risks and the Missing Data

A Data Mystery

Here’s something to consider: more than half of Asian Americans with Type 2 diabetes are unaware of their illness. National level data also indicates that cancer is the leading cause of death among Asian Americans, as they are nearly three times more likely to develop liver cancer than non-Hispanic whites and twice as likely to develop stomach cancer. Regrettably, Asian Americans are also less likely to seek out cancer screening services than other ethnic groups. Furthermore, Asian Americans account for approximately half of the chronic hepatitis B cases in the United States, and are five times more likely to contract tuberculosis.

The array of health risks amongst Asian Americans appears to be growing; however, it’s worth noting that through the years, there has never been good tracking of health-related issues for specific Asian ethnicities. Most of the data being collected today lumps all Asians ethnicities together despite the significant differences among them. And few studies do the extra work to break down results by ethnic group (the stark number of studies that do are extremely limited). Because carefully reported Asian American health data is so scarce, particularly for Asian subgroups, many health disparities go unattended: an unacceptable plight for this growing population of almost 15 million.

The long-standing and inaccurate Model Minority myth may be a contributing factor to this lack of research attention: Asian Americans are often deemed academic wizards that do not do drugs, do not commit crimes, and are supernaturally healthy. The truth is, however, that more than a million Asian Americans live at or below the federal poverty level, lack health insurance, and are afflicted by various health problems.

Continuing to pool Asian groups into one “other Asian” category could prove economically and socially disastrous. Serious health concerns continue to plague the ethnic group as a whole, and if left unacknowledged and unaddressed, may hinder the ability to provide appropriate and timely healthcare. This in turn could lead to increased healthcare costs. The health of all Asian Americans is already beginning to look increasingly like the health of the U.S. population at large. Which is why Governor Jerry Brown’s recent health data bill has earned such strong public support.

Government policy and related efforts to address the lack of rigorous, disaggregated data are necessary to obtain desired results. Even in California, where the Asian population is fairly large, the historically limited number of categories for Asian ethnic groups has hobbled a deeper understanding of the health issues that persist in more narrow categories. People of Taiwanese descent, for example, are folded into the Chinese demographic group for death, disease, and pregnancy rates. Fijian people are lumped into the category of “other Asian.”

“Better data translates to more effective public health strategies that can save lives,” according to a joint statement from the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. Each ethnic community has unique needs and so must be addressed in ways appropriate to them.

Race-specific statistical approaches can reveal important distinctions in data that are lost otherwise. Consequently, it’s essential that disaggregated data becomes the norm for health-related research, particularly among the Asian American population. This will prove beneficial for addressing health disparities present in the Asian American community as a whole and may also reveal other useful health trends as well. By focusing on omission, aggregation, and extrapolation, researchers can provide greater insight into ethnic health issues and thereby reduce medical ignorance, resulting in healthier lives for all.