Spectrum study: Minority children with cancer face higher death rate

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new study led by researchers and physicians at Spectrum Health found minority children with cancer treated at pediatric intensive care units in the U.S. have higher death rates than white patients. 

The findings were published this week in the journal Pediatric Critical Care Medicine.

The study analyzed national database data from more than 12,000 pediatric patients admitted to intensive care over a nine-year span. It found that mortality rates for African American and Hispanic children, 8.5% and 8.1% respectively, were significantly higher than Caucasian non-Hispanic children, which was 6.3%.

The study also found disparities by region in the U.S., with African American patients significantly more likely to die than Caucasians in the South and Hispanic children more likely to die in the West than Caucasian patients.

Researchers also noted that minority children tended to be sicker by the time they arrived in pediatric intensive care.

“You’re taking the most vulnerable in our society and taking a look at them and seeing how well they do, and I think it’s a reflection of our society in some ways,” Dr. Surender Rajasekaran told News 8. 

Dr. Raja, as his colleagues and patients commonly call him, worked on the study. He’s the medical director of research at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Dr. Mara Leimanis Laurens of DeVos Children’s and the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine was the lead author.

Rajasekaran said Spectrum Health has started discussions about racial disparities in health care and how the system can approach the gap in a concrete way, in part because similar outcomes are being found in statistics related to COVID-19 patients. 

“One of the most depressing facts with this (is) for a long time, we’ve been shown disparities exist, right? I think it’s time we do something about it and help these families, help the children and especially now that COVID (is adding to) this. It’s going to be so much worse if we don’t do something very soon,” he added. 

He said it’s a matter of supporting minority families and determining what resources will help ensure they will seek care if it’s needed, whether that’s working on communication or combating socioeconomic factors to make hospital access easier.

“I grew up in Africa and I saw there was so much disparity in the system because things were not available,” Dr. Raja said. “In a country like the U.S., with the resources we have, we should be able to care for our most vulnerable populations in a better way. That, to me, is a big take-home from this.”