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What Do Disparities in Multiple Myeloma Look Like?

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What Do Disparities in Multiple Myeloma Look Like? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

How do health disparities in minority populations with multiple myeloma play out? Expert Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi from the Mayo Clinic joined to discuss data about African Americans and Hispanic Americans with myeloma. Watch as he shares the average age of disease onset, how their symptoms vary, transplant rates, new treatment rates and more.

See More From the Diverse Partners in Your Myeloma Care Program


Rebecca Law:

Dr. Ailawadhi, for our audience who might not understand what health disparities in myeloma look like, can you give a high-level definition and overview, please?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

So, there are disparities at a lot of different levels, just taking the case of multiple myeloma, specifically. So, for example, patients from different racial and ethnic backgrounds tend to present in a different way. So, African Americans present with the diagnosis at a much younger age. The presence of the myeloma precursor called MGUS, or monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, is seen much more frequently in African Americans. Even I would say include Hispanics into that, because Hispanics also get diagnosed at a much younger age. The disease presents very differently, for example, African Americans will present much more frequently with anemia or kidney dysfunction, but they will present with much lesser bone fractures in multiple myeloma.

So, those are disparities in how the disease presents or how it becomes kind of evident. Now, when we talk about disparities, one of the very stark shades of disparities in myeloma is how treatment is given or made available to patients, especially when we talk about racial minorities. So, there has been a lot of literature looking at this, and it has been seen that patients who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, they do not get access to the same kind of treatment in the same timely fashion. So, for example, African Americans and Hispanics are much lesser likely to get a transplant when it comes to myeloma treatment. Now again, I don’t want to say that improvements have not happened. The rates of transplant, rates of new drug use, have increased across the board for all races and ethnicities, but when we compare, the rate of that increase has been much slower in African Americans.

In fact, one of the studies that we looked at, some national data, it took Hispanics a little more than 100 days from the time of diagnosis to get to initial treatment with bortezomib (Velcade), which is a cornerstone drug and is used almost across the board for initial therapy. So, the treatment, there are disparities. And similar, there are some outcome disparities. While on the face of analysis, it’s been said several times that races or different racial sub-groups will have similar outcomes, I think the important thing to understand is that biologically, African Americans have a less aggressive disease, which means that if given the right kind of treatment, African Americans are supposed to in fact have a slightly better outcome than even whites. And there’s one large analysis that came out of the VA system from the Dana-Farber group last year, which was actually highlighting that, because they were able to show that in an equal access system like the VA, African Americans actually had better outcomes, or better survivable. So, there are disparities at the time of presentation, at the time of how treatment is received, how timely is the treatment, and in fact also, outcomes. Because I would say that having an equal outcome for a racial minority is not necessarily lack of disparity, that may actually be underscoring the disparity.

Diversity in Clinical Trials Benefits Everyone

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented and collective experience for us all. Sadly, the pandemic has affected some more than others. This health crisis highlights both the pre-existing inequities in our healthcare system and the populations that experience such ramifications. Racial and ethnic minority groups (REMGs) will make up the majority of the population in the near future. Over the next two decades, the US population is estimated to make this major demographic shift. This is problematic because present inequities render REMGs disproportionately vulnerable and sick.

It is critical that REMGs are included in clinical trials because, as the broader population, their data will affect the outcome of precision medicine for everyone. Currently, REMGs do not have equitable access to general health care, let alone clinical trials. We need broader genomic data for understanding and curing existing diseases. Collective action is needed so future generations avoid the same health disparities.

Clinical Trials Awareness Needs to Extend Beyond an Awareness Week

Clinical trials awareness needs to extend beyond an awareness week or event.  Diverse Health Hub had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Gary Puckrein, president of the National Minority Quality Forum, to learn more about the importance of diversity in clinical trials. In our one-on-one, we learn what’s at stake and what solutions we can act on collectively.

Dr. Puckrein shares three critical considerations. First, we must identify the barriers that prevent diverse clinical trial participation. Second, he describes the bleak outlook if we do not increase diversity in clinical trials. Lastly, we discuss the path to empowerment that creates solutions to these problems.

Historically, clinical trials have been flawed. Different types of barriers prevent diverse participation. For example, in the 1990s, women were not recruited into trials on the assumption that they would react to medications the same way men did:

“Back in the 1990’s we didn’t recruit women into clinical trials and so there was a big struggle to make sure that clinical trials were diverse by gender. Back then the assumption was if you have a bunch of men in the trial, women would react the same way that men do to the medications or the disease pathology would be the same and so, why would you need to have women in trials?”

Likewise, during that time, REMG participation rates were low, around 3-5%. Trust is an essential barrier, with a negative historical context. A poignant example of this for African Americans is the Tuskegee experiment. Dr. Puckrein explains:

“In the African-American community, there are fears that came out of the Tuskegee experiment where therapy was withheld from African-Americans who were suffering from syphilis for no particular reason and it has an awful impact on their lives and so, that’s a deep scar in the African-American community about participating in clinical trials.”

Mistrust in Clinical Trials is Systemic 

Native American and Hispanic American communities have their own stories of mistrust in clinical trials.

The preexisting inequities in our healthcare system is another barrier, and a systemic one. Statistically, most REMGs don’t have access to basic healthcare, let alone resources to participate in clinical trials. Dr. Puckrein shares staggering data, “before the Affordable Care Act about 48% of African-Americans had no health insurance, about 54% of Hispanics had no health insurance.”

Furthermore, someone may be considered ineligible for a clinical trial if they already have existing health conditions. According to Dr. Puckrein, “REMGs were disproportionately excluded from some clinical trials based on either prior cancers, comorbidities, other things that may not have clinical implications.”

Outcome Risks If Barriers Aren’t Eliminated?

Without diversity in clinical trials, we risk collecting homogenized data which does not include the larger genomic context necessary to understand and improve precision medicine for everyone. It’s important that we make clinical trials all-inclusive, as Dr. Puckrein points out:

“What we’re finding is that we need highly targeted medicine, each individual is different. It has nothing to do with race or anything like that – it’s that everybody’s biology is different.”

The stakes are high because the future of our health depends on inclusivity right now. Clinical trials awareness needs to extend beyond a month of awareness. We don’t want today’s diseases to adversely affect generations to come. What then is a viable solution to this dilemma?

How Can We Learn and Take Action?

First. Get informed. Understand the larger historical context and intentions of clinical trials.

Second. Share this information by creating learning communities. Dr. Puckrein gives an example:

“If you bring physicians and patient advocacy groups, the policy makers and others around the table, you can solve problems like that and solve them quickly and inform the healthcare system so it’s interactive, it’s constantly learning. And so, we encourage people to build those – make them data driven. Use the data to help guide you on what interventions will work and how you’ll get the best possible outcome for patients.”

Third. Act. If you want to explore options in your treatment, seek out resources that embrace diversity in clinical trials. The “All of Us” Program is a public health initiative designed to remove the barriers that prevent inclusive access. As Dr. Puckrein highlights,

“The “All of Us” program is really designed to address that problem, to take populations that have not historically been in clinical trials — and now we include senior populations in that list as well — and make sure that we’re gaining signs in research about those populations. And so, the “All of Us” program is really designed to fill a big scientific gap in our knowledge.”

Furthermore, it is crucial to engage early with community leaders and grassroots organizations that resonate with underrepresented patients, and to encourage their participation in the critical stages of research.

Seeking knowledge, joining a community of advocates, and taking collective action is key to making a difference for all of us as we journey the path to empowerment.


Disparities in Care: Equality vs. Equity #patientchat Highlights

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Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on “Disparities in Care: Equality vs. Equity” with Diverse Health Hub (@DHealthHub). The #patientchat community came together for an engaging discussion and shared what was their mind.

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Equality vs. Equity

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Access To Healthcare As A Human Right

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One of the keys to health literacy is understanding your role, as a patient, in the care delivery process chain: learning what you need to know to ask questions that can help clarify decisions with your clinical team; how to assess the information you’re given to understand what you need to do, or to consider, as next steps in your treatment journey; who to consult for expert input and guidance to fact-check, and gut-check, the information you’re processing and the decisions you’re making.

It’s a lot, particularly when you’re dealing with the impact of what I (and Firesign Theater) like to call “a really big disease.” It’s even more – way beyond “a lot” – if you have to also fight for the right to access treatment for your diagnosis.

This may seem like a problem that belongs to someone in a developing country, not one that happens in the USA, but that’s not the case, far too often. In America, a person given a diagnosis of cancer, or of Parkinson’s disease, or any other “really big” condition, not only has to navigate learning all about that condition, but also has to figure out how to pay for the treatment for it.

In a recent survey from West Health and Gallup, some alarming stats surfaced about Americans and access to medical care:

  • 45% of people surveyed feared bankruptcy if they had a major health event (“really big disease” or accident)
  • 77% feared that rising costs will significantly damage the U.S. economy
  • More than 3 million people borrowed more than $10,000 to cover medical expenses in the past year

Which brings me to my main point here – access to medical care is, I believe, a basic human right. If the system that’s providing your care has been priced out of your reach, and you wind up bankrupting yourself, and your family, to access care, is that really “care,” or a symptom of a broken system?

Sure, the doctors and nurses, as well as the hospitals and clinics where they work, deserve to be compensated for their work. I’m not suggesting that medical care be free. What I am suggesting is that, in the US at least, the goal of the “system” has been to protect the status quo – the revenue stream, which at last official count (2017, from the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) was $3.5 trillion, of which about $1 trillion is estimated to be waste. Does that sound like a healthcare system, or a RICO scheme? Asking for millions of friends.

Until we, as a nation, confront this issue of access to medical care, and the inequity of access caused by the “chaos behind a veil of secrecy” that marks the pricing of that access, we’ll be stuck in the loop we’ve been in since the end of WWII, when Harry Truman tried to initiate a national healthcare program and got beaten up on the White House lawn by Congress, and the American Medical Association.

America is founded on the idea that every person has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s hard to have life, or liberty, or happiness without access to healthcare. Let’s live up to our founding principles, and guarantee healthcare access to all. Anything less, and we’re betraying the American promise.

How to Pay for Long-term Care on a Fixed Budget

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Long-term care costs are rising yearly, and with more people approaching age 65+ than ever before, the rates are not expected to fall. Not everyone plans ahead and unfortunately, we cannot know for certain when someone will begin to need long-term care, as it varies case by case. For the elderly population specifically, many individuals begin long-term care after a sudden life change that renders them incapable of caring for themselves, like a stroke or a fall. In the best-case scenario for a stroke or a fall, patients return home after successful rehabilitation. However, as unfortunate as it may be, many individuals are unable to return to their former health.

Sometimes, there is no sudden change and it is simply advanced age that is the main factor determining whether or not a person can safely remain independent. When someone does begin to need long-term care, depending upon the severity of the person’s situation, they are either taken care of by professional caregivers, family members, or moved into an institutional setting. Statistically speaking, about 80% of elderly people who need long-term care receive services within their own home or the home of a family member. The remaining 20% move into facilities, specially designed to accommodate a wide range of needs. Regardless of where we choose to spend our twilight years, there are costs involved. Below, I’ll outline some common ways people are able to fund their long-term care.

What Exactly is Long-term Care?

Long-term care simply refers to the type of assistance provided to people with cognitive or functional limitations to help them perform daily activities. If patients are unable to return safely home after a hospital stay, facilities continue rehabilitation to try and strengthen patients and improve their quality of life. The more a resident can do by himself or herself (eating, using the bathroom, bathing, and changing), the happier they generally are.

According to the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, the elderly population in nursing homes has declined over the past ten years. Through more advanced rehabilitation practices and increased availability to services, the majority of long-term care recipients are able to live with loved ones, in assisted living, or group homes if they do not need the intensive 24hour supervision that comes along with nursing home residence. Nevertheless, the question still remains: how to pay for the care you need.

Medicaid Long-term Care:

For many people, Medicaid is the best option when it comes time to pay for long-term care. If your loved one meets certain medical and financial requirements, or they are already receiving SSI benefits, they may be eligible. For most states, the monthly income limit is around $2,200 and the asset limit is $2,000. For Arizona specifically, the monthly income limit is $2,205. Anything beyond these values needs to be spent towards care or the applicant may be ineligible. The medical eligibility is stringent and the recipient can only live in Medicaid-approved homes or receive Medicaid-approved services in the community. Even with all of the requirements, this is still the best option for many families. For up-to-date Medicaid information, follow this link.

Long-term Care Insurance:

Although a person may have paid for medical insurance their whole life, medical insurance companies do not cover long-term care. There is, however, such a thing as long-term care insurance. There are different policies with different features, but generally, a person pays a monthly premium and when long-term care services are needed, the policy will pay out a certain amount, usually in the hundreds of thousands. Similar to life insurance, premiums are cheaper if the person buying insurance is young and healthy. Those already in need of long-term care services are not able to get coverage. Although these policies do not last forever, the payout is usually sufficient for the entire cost of care.

Sometimes, however, the care outlasts the insurance coverage. Don’t worry because many states have what is called a long-term care insurance partnership, useful when people spend through their policy and need to apply for Medicaid coverage. The partnership is a program between the state and private insurance companies. Partnership policies protect assets by reciprocating dollar for dollar what policyholders pay into their policies. For example, if you bought a Partnership Policy with a maximum benefit payout of $200,000, you are able to protect $200,000 of your assets. For married couples each spouse needs to purchase their own policy.

Once the original long-term care insurance coverage is exhausted, you may apply for Medicaid with the benefit pay out’s worth of assets exempted. This is extremely beneficial because again, most states have an asset limit of $2,000. In addition to the asset limit, Medicaid penalizes people who have given away or sold property below fair market value within the five years preceding the need for long-term care assistance.

Qualified Income Trust:

If an individual is over the financial limit for Medicaid long-term care coverage, some states allow applicants to spend down income towards medical care while others allow the creation of Qualified Income Trusts, also known as Miller Trusts. Miller Trusts place any income beyond the state’s limit into a trust, designating the state Medicaid program as the beneficiary once the long-term care recipient dies. The problem many people have with spend-down and Qualified Income Trusts is that for the most part, all assets and income eventually go towards care. Long-term care insurance, as described above, helps prevent the complete drain of assets for people who are hoping to leave behind a legacy.

Reverse Mortgage:

Another option that has gained popularity in recent years is the reverse mortgage. A reverse mortgage is not complicated, but may not be the best option for every situation. Essentially, a reverse mortgage is a loan borrowed against the equity of a home, but rather than making monthly payments, the bank reversely pays the borrower. As long as the borrower remains in the home they do not have to pay the bank.

If the borrower moves to a care facility or passes away, then the bank claims the property to pay off the amount given in the loan. This is a good option if the homeowner is healthy enough to remain at home, but requires some caregiving services. Also, this is for people who are not interested in leaving their home behind to loved ones. See here for a more detailed explanation of pros and cons.

Even with 80% of elders receiving “free” care through informal caretakers such as family members, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the value of this donated care at approximately $234 billion for 2011, the last year calculated.[1] This number is determined based on calculating forgone wages, time that could be spent employed elsewhere, transportation costs, and performing duties otherwise performed by paid healthcare aids.

For family caregivers it is especially important to reach out to a social worker for benefits you may not be aware of in your home state. If you are a family caretaker, your loved one may be eligible for respite care, a paid-for medical alert, home health services, or community based waivers paid for by Medicaid depending on financial and medical eligibility. Don’t wait until it is too late and start planning today.

[1] See page 2. http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/44363-LTC.pdf