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The importance of understanding disparities in IBD


Assessing how race and other characteristics may impact the presentation and outcomes of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a powerful method for understanding the basic underpinnings of IBD (microbiome, environmental, immune, and genetic). Yet, exclusively viewing race with this biologic lens leaves out another critical explanation for potential differences in IBD presentation and outcomes, which is health disparities.

Health disparities are a specific type of health difference, linked with economic, social, or environmental disadvantages and in groups traditionally subjected to discrimination, exclusion, or disadvantages. These social determinants of health can, many times, have an even greater effect on disease presentation and outcomes than biological determinants. In the field of IBD, racial disparities are an underrecognized and understudied area. Yet what we do know is enough to demonstrate that critical disparities in IBD exist and that additional study and action are needed.

For example, surgery is more common in African Americans and Hispanics compared to Whites with IBD.1 Despite these findings, African Americans and Hispanics tend to have low use of biologics early in the disease course. Surgical outcomes are also worse in African Americans and Hispanics, who experience increased morbidity, mortality, and readmission after surgery.2

While the above outcomes may be attributable to inherent biologic differences, disparities quite likely have an important role. African Americans for example are less likely to see a GI or IBD specialist, more likely use the emergency room for their IBD care, and more likely to delay health visits because of transportation and financial issues. Non-Whites are more often seen in low–IBD volume hospitals, which can affect surgical outcomes. African Americans and Hispanics more often have reduced health literacy, which could affect their confidence and understanding in starting biologic therapy.

Fortunately, understanding and eliminating disparities in IBD is increasingly recognized as a priority area for research and action by the AGA and funding societies. We can do our part in many ways. We can immediately impact what is in our control right now (asking patients what economic and social barriers they may have to accessing care). We can advocate where we may not have direct control (policies that improve health access and social determinants of health). Finally, we can better understand and study social determinants of health in our research to get a more complete picture of how health disparities affect IBD presentation and outcomes.

Dr. Velayos is chief of gastroenterology at San Francisco Medical Center of the Permanente Medical Group, regional lead for inflammatory bowel disease for Northern California Kaiser Permanente, and chair of the immunology, microbiology, and inflammatory bowel disease section for the American Gastroenterological Association. He has no relevant conflicts to declare. Dr. Velayos made these comments during the AGA Institute Presidential Plenary at the annual Digestive Disease Week®.


1. Shi HY et al. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2018 Feb;16(2):190-7.

2. Booth A et al. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2021 Sep 23. doi: 10.1093/ibd/izab237.

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