Mortality Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups in the Veterans Health Administration: An Evidence Review and Map

Am J Public Health. 2018 Mar;108(3):e1-e11. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.304246.


Background: Continued racial/ethnic health disparities were recently described as "the most serious and shameful health care issue of our time." Although the 2014 US Affordable Care Act-mandated national insurance coverage expansion has led to significant improvements in health care coverage and access, its effects on life expectancy are not yet known. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the largest US integrated health care system, has a sustained commitment to health equity that addresses all 3 stages of health disparities research: detection, understanding determinants, and reduction or elimination. Despite this, racial disparities still exist in the VHA across a wide range of clinical areas and service types.

Objectives: To inform the health equity research agenda, we synthesized evidence on racial/ethnic mortality disparities in the VHA.

Search methods: Our research librarian searched MEDLINE and Cochrane Central Registry of Controlled Trials from October 2006 through February 2017 using terms for racial groups and disparities.

Selection criteria: We included studies if they compared mortality between any racial/ethnic minority and nonminority veteran groups or between different minority groups in the VHA (PROSPERO# CRD42015015974). We made study selection decisions on the basis of prespecified eligibility criteria. They were first made by 1 reviewer and checked by a second and disagreements were resolved by consensus (sequential review).

Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers sequentially abstracted data on prespecified population, outcome, setting, and study design characteristics. Two reviewers sequentially graded the strength of evidence using prespecified criteria on the basis of 5 key domains: study limitations (study design and internal validity), consistency, directness, precision of the evidence, and reporting biases. We synthesized the evidence qualitatively by grouping studies first by racial/ethnic minority group and then by clinical area. For areas with multiple studies in the same population and outcome, we pooled their reported hazard ratios (HRs) using random effects models (StatsDirect version 2.8.0; StatsDirect Ltd., Altrincham, England). We created an evidence map using a bubble plot format to represent the evidence base in 5 dimensions: odds ratio or HR of mortality for racial/ethnic minority group versus Whites, clinical area, strength of evidence, statistical significance, and racial group.

Main results: From 2840 citations, we included 25 studies. Studies were large (n ≥ 10 000) and involved nationally representative cohorts, and the majority were of fair quality. Most studies compared mortality between Black and White veterans and found similar or lower mortality for Black veterans. However, we found modest mortality disparities (HR or OR = 1.07, 1.52) for Black veterans with stage 4 chronic kidney disease, colon cancer, diabetes, HIV, rectal cancer, or stroke; for American Indian and Alaska Native veterans undergoing noncardiac major surgery; and for Hispanic veterans with HIV or traumatic brain injury (most low strength).

Author's conclusions: Although the VHA's equal access health care system has reduced many racial/ethnic mortality disparities present in the private sector, our review identified mortality disparities that have persisted mainly for Black veterans in several clinical areas. However, because most mortality disparities were supported by single studies with imprecise findings, we could not draw strong conclusions about this evidence. More disparities research is needed for American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, and Hispanic veterans overall and for more of the largest life expectancy gaps. Public Health Implications. Because of the relatively high prevalence of diabetes in Black veterans, further research to better understand and reduce this mortality disparity may be prioritized as having the greatest potential impact. However, other mortality disparities affect thousands of veterans and cannot be ignored.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Black People / statistics & numerical data*
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Healthcare Disparities / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hispanic or Latino / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Mortality*
  • Racial Groups*
  • United States
  • United States Department of Veterans Affairs
  • White People / statistics & numerical data*