NIH Collaboration Seeks to Help Understand U.S. Burden of Health Disparities: Why Your County Matters
Since the early 1990s, federal support of research has increased to understand minority health and identify and address health disparities. Research in these areas has evolved from a starting point of developing a basic descriptive understanding of health disparities and who is most affected. Now, it is discovering the underlying complexity of factors involved in health outcomes to inform interventions and reduce these disparities.
One of these many factors is where we live, learn, work, and play and how that affects different people. A group of NIH scientists and their colleagues recently published a study in the journal The Lancet that they hope is a step toward better understanding geographic disparities and their role in health equity .
As Director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), I worked with NIMHD’s Scientific Director, Anna María Nápoles, to conceive the study and establish the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH with five NIH Institutes and two Offices. Through this collaboration, NIH funded the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington to conduct the analysis. The IHME has worked for 30 years on the GBD project in over 200 countries.
The Lancet paper offered the first comprehensive U.S. county-level life expectancy estimates to highlight the significant gaps that persist among racial and ethnic populations across the nation. The analysis revealed that despite overall life expectancy gains of 2.3 years from 2000–2019, Black populations experienced shorter life expectancy than White populations.
In addition, American Indian and Alaska Native populations’ life expectancy did not improve and, in fact, decreased in most counties. We found national-level life expectancy advantages for Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations ranging from three to seven years, respectively, compared to White populations. But there were notable exceptions for Hispanic/Latino populations in selected counties in the Southwest.
Certainly the most-alarming trend identified in the paper was that during the study’s last 10 years (2010–2019), life expectancy growth was stagnant across all races and ethnicities. Moreover, 60 percent of U.S. counties experienced a decrease in life expectancy.
While these findings provide an important frame for how disparities exist along many dimensions—by race, ethnicity, and geographic region—they also highlight these differences within our local communities. This level of detail offers an unprecedented opportunity for researchers and public health leaders to focus on where these differences are the most prominent, and possibly give us a clearer picture on what can be done about it.
These data raise many important questions, too. What can we learn from places that are doing well in caring for their most disadvantaged populations? How can these factors be sustained, replicated, and transferred to other places? Are there current policies and/or community services that contribute to or inhibit gaining access to appropriate clinical care, healthy and affordable food, good schools, and/or economic opportunities?
To help answer these questions, the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH, in partnership with IHME, have developed a comprehensive database and interactive data visualization tool that provides life expectancy and all-cause mortality by race and ethnicity for 3,110 U.S. counties from 2000-2019. Efforts are underway to expand the database to include causes of death and risk factors by race/ethnicity and education, as well as to disaggregate some of the major racial-ethnic groups.
Using IHME’s established model of comprehensive and replicable data collection, the joint effort aims to improve access to health data resources, bolster analytic approaches, and deliver user-friendly estimates to the wider research and health policy community. The collection’s standardized, comprehensive, historical, and real-time data can be the cornerstone for efforts to address disparities and advance health equity.
It is important to note that the Lancet study only included data from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on overall mortality and life expectancy has exacerbated existing health disparities. Disaggregated data are essential in helping to understand the underlying mechanisms of health disparities and guiding the development and implementation of interventions that address local needs.
As a clinician scientist, I have made a personal commitment at NIMHD to foster and encourage data collection with standardized measures, harmonization, and efficient data sharing to help us explore the nuances within all populations and their communities. Without these guiding principles for managing data, inequities remain unseen and unaddressed. Scientists, clinicians, and policymakers can all potentially benefit from this work if we use the data to inform our actions. It is an opportunity to implement real change in our NIH-wide combined efforts to reduce health disparities and improve quality of life and longevity for all populations.
 Life expectancy by county, race, and ethnicity in the USA, 2000-19: a systematic analysis of health disparities. GBD US Health Disparities Collaborators. Lancet. 2022 Jul 2;400(10345):25-38.
Understand Health Disparities Series (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities/NIH)
HD Pulse (NIMHD)
Institute for Health Metrics (University of Washington, Seattle)
NIH Support: The members of the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH include: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; NIH Office of Disease Prevention; NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 17th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
As I sit down to write this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact, and we’re all trying to figure out our “new normal.” For some, figuring out the new normal has been especially difficult, and that’s something for all of us to consider during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s such an important time to share what we know about suicide prevention and consider how we can further this knowledge to those in need.
At NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we learned about suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic? And how should our research evolve to reflect a rapidly changing world?
Over the last few years, people have been concerned about the pandemic’s impact on suicide rates. So far, data suggest that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained steady. But there is concerning evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected suicide risk in historically underserved communities.
For example, data suggest that people in minority racial and ethnic groups experienced greater increases in suicidal thoughts during the pandemic . Additional data indicate that suicide rates may be rising among some young adult racial and ethnic minority groups .
Structural racism and other social and environmental factors are major drivers of mental health disparities, and NIMH continues to invest in research to understand how these social determinants of health influence suicide risk. This research includes investigations into the effects of long-term and daily discrimination.
To mitigate these effects, it is critical that we identify specific underlying mechanisms so that we can develop targeted interventions. To this end, NIMH is supporting research in underserved communities to identify suicide risk and the protective factors and effective strategies for reducing this risk (e.g., RFA-MH-22-140, RFA-MH-21-188, RFA-MH-21-187). There are important lessons to be learned that we can’t afford to miss.
Building Solid Foundations
The pandemic also underscored the urgent need to support youth mental health. Indeed, in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, calling attention to increasing rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young people. Crucially, the advisory highlighted the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
At NIMH, we know that establishing a foundation for good mental health early on can support a person’s overall health and well-being over a lifetime. In light of this, we are investing in research to identify effective prevention efforts that can help set kids on positive mental health trajectories early in life.
Additionally, by re-analyzing research investments already made, we are looking to see whether these early prevention efforts have meaningful impacts on later suicide risk and mental health outcomes. These findings may help to improve a range of systems—such as schools, social services, and health care—to better support kids’ mental health needs.
Improving and Expanding Access
The pandemic has also shown us that telehealth can be an effective means of delivering and increasing access to mental health care. The NIMH has supported research examining telehealth as a tool for improving suicide prevention services, including the use of digital tools that can help extend provider reach and support individuals at risk for suicide.
At the same time, NIMH is investing in work to understand the most effective ways to help providers use evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide. This research helps inform federal partners and others about the best ways to support policies and practices that help prevent suicide deaths.
In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis number. This service builds on the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, allowing anyone to call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors and mental health services. Research supported by NIMH helped build the case for such lifelines, and now we’re calling for research aimed at identifying the best ways to help people use this evolving crisis support system.
With these and many other efforts, we are hopeful that people who are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors will be able to access the evidence-based support and services they need. This National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to issue a call to action: Help raise awareness by sharing resources on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to get help. By working together, we can prevent suicide and save lives.
 Racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance use among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic – United States, April and May 2020. McKnight-Eily LR, Okoro CA, Strine TW, Verlenden J, Hollis ND, Njai R, Mitchell EW, Board A, Puddy R, Thomas C. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Feb 5;70(5):162-166.
 One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Message. April 9, 2021.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Help for Mental Illnesses (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Suicide Prevention (NIMH)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 16th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
While great progress has been made in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s opioid crisis continues to evolve in unexpected ways. The opioid crisis, which worsened during the pandemic and now involves the scourge of fentanyl, claims more than 70,000 lives each year in the United States . But throughout the pandemic, NIH has continued its research efforts to help people with a substance use disorder find the help that they so need. These efforts include helping to find relief for the millions of Americans who live with severe and chronic pain.
Recently, I traveled to Atlanta for the Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022. While there, I moderated an evening fireside chat with two of NIH’s leaders in combating the opioid crisis: Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and Rebecca Baker, director of Helping to End Addiction Long-term® (HEAL) initiative. What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.
Tabak: Let’s start with Nora. When did the opioid crisis begin, and how has it changed over the years
Volkow: It started just before the year 2000 with the over-prescription of opioid medications. People were becoming addicted to them, many from diverted product. By 2010, CDC developed guidelines that decreased the over-prescription. But then, we saw a surge in heroin use. That turned the opioid crisis into two problems: prescription opioids and heroin.
In 2016, we encountered the worst scourge yet. It is fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is easily manufactured, and it’s easier than other opioids to hide and transport across the border. That makes this drug very profitable.
What we have seen during the pandemic is the expansion of fentanyl use in the United States. Initially, fentanyl made its way to the Northeast; now it’s everywhere. Initially, it was used to contaminate heroin; now it’s used to contaminate cocaine, methamphetamine, and, most recently, illicit prescription drugs, such as benzodiazepines and stimulants. With fentanyl contaminating all these drugs, we’re also seeing a steep rise in mortality from cocaine and methamphetamine use in African Americans, American Indians, and Alaska natives.
Tabak: What about teens? A recent study in the journal JAMA reported for the first time in a decade that overdose deaths among U.S. teens rose dramatically in 2020 and kept rising through 2021 . Is fentanyl behind this alarming increase?
Volkow: Yes, and it has us very concerned. The increase also surprised us. Over the past decade, we have seen a consistent decrease in adolescent drug use. In fact, there are some drugs that have the lowest usage rates that we’ve ever recorded. To observe this more than doubling of overdose deaths from fentanyl before the COVID pandemic was a major surprise.
Adolescents don’t typically use heroin, nor do they seek out fentanyl. Our fear is adolescents are misusing illicit prescriptions contaminated with fentanyl. Because an estimated 30-40 percent of those tainted pills contain levels of fentanyl that can kill you, it becomes a game of Russian roulette. This dangerous game is being played by adolescents who may just be experimenting with illicit pills.
Tabak: For people with substance use disorders, there are new ways to get help. In fact, one of the very few positive outcomes of the pandemic is the emergence of telehealth. If we can learn to navigate the various regulatory issues, do you see a place for telehealth going forward?
Volkow: When you have a crisis like this one, there’s a real need to accelerate interventions and innovation like telehealth. It certainly existed before the pandemic, and we knew that telehealth was beneficial for the treatment of substance use disorders. But it was very difficult to get reimbursement, making access extremely limited.
When COVID overwhelmed emergency departments, people with substance use disorders could no longer get help there. Other interventions were needed, and telehealth helped fill the void. It also had the advantage of reaching rural populations in states such as Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, where easy access to treatment or unique interventions can be challenging. In many prisons and jails, administrators worried about bringing web-based technologies into their facilities. So, in partnership with the Justice Department, we have created networks that now will enable the entry of telehealth into jails and prisons.
Tabak: Rebecca, it’s been four years since the HEAL initiative was announced at this very summit in 2018. How is the initiative addressing this ever-evolving crisis?
Baker: We’ve launched over 600 research projects across the country at institutions, hospitals, and research centers in a broad range of scientific areas. We’re working to come up with new treatment options for pain and addiction. There’s exciting research underway to address the craving and sleep disruption caused by opioid withdrawal. This research has led to over 20 investigational new drug applications to the FDA. Some are for repurposed drugs, compounds that have already been shown to be safe and effective for treating other health conditions that may also have value for treating addiction. Some are completely novel. We have also initiated the first testing of an opioid vaccine, for oxycodone, to prevent relapse and overdose in high-risk individuals.
Tabak: What about clinical research?
Baker: We’re testing multiple different treatments for both pain and addiction. Not everyone with pain is the same, and not every treatment is going to work the same for everyone. We’re conducting clinical trials in real-world settings to find out what works best for patients. We’re also working to implement lifesaving, evidence-based interventions into places where people seek help, including faith, community, and criminal justice settings.
Tabak: The pandemic highlighted inequities in our health-care system. These inequities afflict individuals and populations who are struggling with addiction and overdose. Nora, what needs to be done to address the social determinants of racial disparities?
Volkow: This is an extraordinarily important question. As you noted, certain racial and ethnic groups had disproportionately higher mortality rates from COVID. We have seen the same with overdose deaths. For example, we know that the most important intervention for preventing overdoses is to initiate medications such as methadone, buprenorphine or vivitrol. But Black Americans are initiated on these medications at least five years later than white Americans. Similarly, Black Americans also are less likely to receive the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.
That’s not right. We must ask what are the core causes of limited access to high-quality health care? Low income is a major contributing factor. Helping people get an education is one of the most important factors to address it. Another factor is distrust of the medical system. When racial and ethnic discrimination is compounded by discrimination because a person has a substance use disorder, you can see why it becomes very difficult for some to seek help. As a society, we certainly need to address racial discrimination. But we also need to address discrimination against substance use disorders in people of all races who are vulnerable.
Baker: Our research is tackling these barriers head on with a direct focus on stigma. As Nora alluded to, oftentimes providers may not offer lifesaving medication to some patients, and we’ve developed and are testing research training to help providers recognize and address their own biases and behaviors in caring for different populations.
We have supported research on the drivers of equity. A big part of this is engaging with people with lived experience and making sure that the interventions being designed are feasible in the real world. Not everyone has access to health insurance, transportation, childcare—the support that they may need to sustain treatment and recovery. In short, our research is seeking ways to enhance linkage to treatment.
Nora mentioned the importance of telehealth in improving equity. That’s another research focus, as well as developing tailored, culturally appropriate interventions for addressing pain and addiction. When you have this trust issue, you can’t always go in with a prescription or a recommendation from a physician. So in American and Alaskan native communities, we’re integrating evidence-based prevention approaches with traditional practices like wellness gatherings, cooking together, use of sage and spirituality, along with community support, and seeing if that encourages and increases the uptake of these prevention approaches in communities that need it so much.
Tabak: The most heartbreaking impact of the opioid crisis has been the infants born dependent on opioids. Rebecca, what’s being done to help the very youngest victims of the opioid crisis born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, or NOWS?
Baker: Thanks for asking about the infants. Babies with NOWS undergo withdrawal at birth and cry inconsolably, often with extreme stomach upset and sometimes even with seizures. Our research found that hospitals across the country vary greatly in how they treat these babies. Our program, ACT NOW, or Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal, aims to provide concrete guidance for nurses in the NICU treating these infants. One of the studies that we call Eat, Sleep, Console focuses on the abilities of the baby. Our researchers are testing if the ability to eat, sleep, or be consoled increases bonding with the mother and if it reduces time in the hospital, as well as other long-term health outcomes.
In addition to that NOWS program, we’ve also launched the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, or HBCD, that seeks to understand the long-term consequences of opioid exposure together with all the other environmental and other factors the baby experiences as they grow up. The hope is that together these studies will inform future prevention and treatment efforts for both mental health and also substance use and addiction.
Tabak: As the surge in heroin use and appearance of fentanyl has taught us, the opioid crisis has ever-changing dynamics. It tells us that we need better prevention strategies. Rebecca, could you share what HEAL is doing about prevention?
Baker: Prevention has always been a core component of the HEAL Initiative in a number of ways. The first is by preventing unnecessary opioid exposures through enhanced and evidence-based pain management. HEAL is supporting research on new small molecules, new devices, new biologic therapeutics that could treat pain and distinct pain conditions without opioids. And we’re also researching and providing guidance for clinicians on strategies for managing pain without medication, including acupuncture and physical therapy. They can often be just as effective and more sustainable.
HEAL is also working to address risky opioid use outside of pain management, especially in high-risk groups. That includes teens and young adults who may be experimenting, people lacking stable housing, patients who are on high-dose opioids for pain management, or they maybe have gone off high-dose opioids but still have them in their possession.
Finally, to prevent overdose we have to give naloxone to the people who need it. The HEALing Communities Study has taken some really innovative approaches to providing naloxone in libraries, on the beach, and places where overdoses are actually happening, not just in medical settings. And I think that will be, in our fight against the overdose crisis, a key tool.
Volkow: Larry, I’d like to add a few words on prevention. There are evidence-based interventions that have been shown to be quite effective for preventing substance use among teenagers and young adults. And yet, they are not implemented. We have evidence-based interventions that work for prevention. We have evidence-based interventions that work for treatment. But we don’t provide the resources for their implementation, nor do we train the personnel that can carry it over.
Science can give us tools, but if we do not partner at the next level for their implementation, those tools do not have the impact they should have. That’s why I always bring up the importance of policy in the implementation phase.
Tabak: Rebecca, the opioid crisis got started with a lack of good options for treating pain. Could you share with us how HEAL’s research efforts are addressing the needs of millions of Americans who experience both chronic pain and opioid use disorder?
Baker: It’s so important to remember people with pain. We can’t let our efforts to combat the opioid crisis make us lose sight of the needs of the millions of Americans with pain. One hundred million Americans experience pain; half of them have severe pain, daily pain, and 20 million have such severe pain that they can’t do things that are important to them in their life, family, job, other activities that bring their life meaning.
HEAL recognizes that these individuals need better options. New non-addictive pain treatments. But as you say, there is a special need for people with a substance use disorder who also have pain. They desperately need new and better options. And so we recently, through the HEAL Initiative, launched a new trials network that couples medication-based treatment for opioid use disorders, so that’s methadone or buprenorphine, with new pain-management strategies such as psychotherapy or yoga in the opioid use disorder treatment setting so that you’re not sending them around to lots of different places. And our hope is that this integrated approach will address some of the fragmented healthcare challenges that often results in poor care for these patients.
My last point would be that some patients need opioids to function. We can’t forget as we make sure that we are limiting risky opioid use that we don’t take away necessary opioids for these patients, and so our future research will incorporate ways of making sure that they receive needed treatment while also preventing them from the risks of opioid use disorder.
Tabak: Rebecca, let me ask you one more question. What do you want the folks here to remember about HEAL?
Baker: HEAL stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term, and nobody knows more than the people in this room how challenging and important that really is. We’ve heard a little bit about the great promise of our research and some of the advances that are coming through our research pipeline, new treatments, new guidance for clinicians and caregivers. I want everyone to know that we want to work with you. By working together, I’m confident that we will tailor these new advances to meet the individual needs of the patients and populations that we serve.
Tabak: Nora, what would you like to add?
Volkow: This afternoon, I met with two parents who told me the story of how they lost their daughter to an overdose. They showed me pictures of this fantastic girl, along with her drawings. Whenever we think about overdose deaths in America, the sheer number—75,000—can make us indifferent. But when you can focus on one person and feel the love surrounding that life, you remember the value of this work.
Like in COVID, substance use disorders are a painful problem that we’re all experiencing in some way. They may have upset our lives. But they may have brought us together and, in many instances, brought out the best that humans can do. The best, to me, is caring for one another and taking the responsibility of helping those that are most vulnerable. I believe that science has a purpose. And here we have a purpose: to use science to bring solutions that can prevent and treat those suffering from substance use disorders.
Tabak: Thanks to both of you for this enlightening conversation.
 Drug overdose deaths, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 22, 2022.
 Trends in drug overdose deaths among US adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. Friedman J. et al. JAMA. 2022 Apr 12;327(14):1398-1400.
Video: Evening Plenary with NIH’s Lawrence Tabak, Nora Volkow, and Rebecca Baker (Rx and Illicit Drug Summit 2022)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Rebecca Baker (HEAL/NIH)
Nora Volkow (NIDA)
Nearly four years ago, NIH opened national enrollment for the All of Us Research Program. This historic program is building a vital research community within the United States of at least 1 million participant partners from all backgrounds. Its unifying goal is to advance precision medicine, an emerging form of health care tailored specifically to the individual, not the average patient as is now often the case. As part of this historic effort, many participants have offered DNA samples for whole genome sequencing, which provides information about almost all of an individual’s genetic makeup.
Earlier this month, the All of Us Research Program hit an important milestone. We released the first set of nearly 100,000 whole genome sequences from our participant partners. The sequences are stored in the All of Us Researcher Workbench, a powerful, cloud-based analytics platform that makes these data broadly accessible to registered researchers.
The All of Us Research Program and its many participant partners are leading the way toward more equitable representation in medical research. About half of this new genomic information comes from people who self-identify with a racial or ethnic minority group. That’s extremely important because, until now, over 90 percent of participants in large genomic studies were of European descent. This lack of diversity has had huge impacts—deepening health disparities and hindering scientific discovery from fully benefiting everyone.
The Researcher Workbench also contains information from many of the participants’ electronic health records, Fitbit devices, and survey responses. Another neat feature is that the platform links to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to provide more details about the communities where participants live.
This unique and comprehensive combination of data will be key in transforming our understanding of health and disease. For example, given the vast amount of data and diversity in the Researcher Workbench, new diseases are undoubtedly waiting to be uncovered and defined. Many new genetic variants are also waiting to be identified that may better predict disease risk and response to treatment.
To speed up the discovery process, these data are being made available, both widely and wisely. To protect participants’ privacy, the program has removed all direct identifiers from the data and upholds strict requirements for researchers seeking access. Already, more than 1,500 scientists across the United States have gained access to the Researcher Workbench through their institutions after completing training and agreeing to the program’s strict rules for responsible use. Some of these researchers are already making discoveries that promote precision medicine, such as finding ways to predict how to best to prevent vision loss in patients with glaucoma.
Beyond making genomic data available for research, All of Us participants have the opportunity to receive their personal DNA results, at no cost to them. So far, the program has offered genetic ancestry and trait results to more than 100,000 participants. Plans are underway to begin sharing health-related DNA results on hereditary disease risk and medication-gene interactions later this year.
This first release of genomic data is a huge milestone for the program and for health research more broadly, but it’s also just the start. The program’s genome centers continue to generate the genomic data and process about 5,000 additional participant DNA samples every week.
The ultimate goal is to gather health data from at least 1 million or more people living in the United States, and there’s plenty of time to join the effort. Whether you would like to contribute your own DNA and health information, engage in research, or support the All of Us Research Program as a partner, it’s easy to get involved. By taking part in this historic program, you can help to build a better and more equitable future for health research and precision medicine.
Note: Joshua Denny, M.D., M.S., is the Chief Executive Officer of NIH’s All of Us Research Program.
Join All of Us (NIH)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Race has a long and tortured history in America. Though great strides have been made through the work of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to build an equal and just society for all, we still have more work to do, as race continues to factor into American life where it shouldn’t. A medical case in point is a common diagnostic tool for chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that affects one in seven American adults and causes a gradual weakening of the kidneys that, for some, will lead to renal failure.
The diagnostic tool is a medical algorithm called estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). It involves getting a blood test that measures how well the kidneys filter out a common waste product from the blood and adding in other personal factors to score how well a person’s kidneys are working. Among those factors is whether a person is Black. However, race is a complicated construct that incorporates components that go well beyond biological and genetic factors to social and cultural issues. The concern is that by lumping together Black people, the algorithm lacks diagnostic precision for individuals and could contribute to racial disparities in healthcare delivery—or even runs the risk of reifying race in a way that suggests more biological significance than it deserves.
That’s why I was pleased recently to see the results of two NIH-supported studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine that suggest a way to take race out of the kidney disease equation [1, 2]. The approach involves a new equation that swaps out one blood test for another and doesn’t ask about race.
For a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic issues and access to healthcare, CKD disproportionately affects the Black community. In fact, Blacks with the condition are also almost four times more likely than whites to develop kidney failure. That’s why Blacks with CKD must visit their doctors regularly to monitor their kidney function, and often that visit involves eGFR.
The blood test used in eGFR measures creatinine, a waste product produced from muscle. For about the past 20 years, a few points have been automatically added to the score of African Americans, based on data showing that adults who identify as Black, on average, have a higher baseline level of circulating creatinine. But adjusting the score upward toward normal function runs the risk of making the kidneys seem a bit healthier than they really are and delaying life-preserving dialysis or getting on a transplant list.
A team led by Chi-yuan Hsu, University of California, San Francisco, took a closer look at the current eGFR calculations. The researchers used long-term data from the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort (CRIC) Study, an NIH-supported prospective, observational study of nearly 4,000 racially and ethnically diverse patients with CKD in the U.S. The study design specified that about 40 percent of its participants should identify as Black.
To look for race-free ways to measure kidney function, the researchers randomly selected more than 1,400 of the study’s participants to undergo a procedure that allows kidney function to be measured directly instead of being estimated based on blood tests. The goal was to develop an accurate approach to estimating GFR, the rate of fluid flow through the kidneys, from blood test results that didn’t rely on race.
Their studies showed that simply omitting race from the equation would underestimate GFR in Black study participants. The best solution, they found, was to calculate eGFR based on cystatin C, a small protein that the kidneys filter from the blood, in place of the standard creatinine. Estimation of GFR using cystatin C generated similarly accurate results but without the need to factor in race.
The second NIH-supported study led by Lesley Inker, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA, came to similar conclusions. They set out to develop new equations without race using data from several prior studies. They then compared the accuracy of their new eGFR equations to measured GFR in a validation set of 12 other studies, including about 4,000 participants.
Their findings show that currently used equations that include race, sex, and age overestimated measured GFR in Black Americans. However, taking race out of the equation without other adjustments underestimated measured GFR in Black people. Equations including both creatinine and cystatin C, but omitting race, were more accurate. The new equations also led to smaller estimated differences between Black and non-Black study participants.
The hope is that these findings will build momentum toward widespread adoption of cystatin C for estimating GFR. Already, a national task force has recommended immediate implementation of a new diagnostic equation that eliminates race and called for national efforts to increase the routine and timely measurement of cystatin C . This will require a sea change in the standard measurements of blood chemistries in clinical and hospital labs—where creatinine is routinely measured, but cystatin C is not. As these findings are implemented into routine clinical care, let’s hope they’ll reduce health disparities by leading to more accurate and timely diagnosis, supporting the goals of precision health and encouraging treatment of CKD for all people, regardless of their race.
 Race, genetic ancestry, and estimating kidney function in CKD. Hsu CY, Yang W, Parikh RV, Anderson AH, Chen TK, Cohen DL, He J, Mohanty MJ, Lash JP, Mills KT, Muiru AN, Parsa A, Saunders MR, Shafi T, Townsend RR, Waikar SS, Wang J, Wolf M, Tan TC, Feldman HI, Go AS; CRIC Study Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.
 New creatinine- and cystatin C-based equations to estimate GFR without race. Inker LA, Eneanya ND, Coresh J, Tighiouart H, Wang D, Sang Y, Crews DC, Doria A, Estrella MM, Froissart M, Grams ME, Greene T, Grubb A, Gudnason V, Gutiérrez OM, Kalil R, Karger AB, Mauer M, Navis G, Nelson RG, Poggio ED, Rodby R, Rossing P, Rule AD, Selvin E, Seegmiller JC, Shlipak MG, Torres VE, Yang W, Ballew SH,Couture SJ, Powe NR, Levey AS; Chronic Kidney Disease Epidemiology Collaboration. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.
 A unifying approach for GFR estimation: recommendations of the NKF-ASN Task Force on Reassessing the Inclusion of Race in Diagnosing Kidney Disease. Delgado C, Baweja M, Crews DC, Eneanya ND, Gadegbeku CA, Inker LA, Mendu ML, Miller WG, Moxey-Mims MM, Roberts GV, St Peter WL, Warfield C, Powe NR. Am J Kidney Dis. 2021 Sep 22:S0272-6386(21)00828-3.
Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Chi-yuan Hsu (University of California, San Francisco)
Lesley Inker (Tufts Medical Center, Boston)
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases