African-Americans living in the three largest American cities are more likely than whites to live in a “trauma desert” – a community that is at least 5 miles away from an advanced trauma care facility – according to a new University of Chicago study.
Using 2015 census data, researchers examined access to designated Level 1 and Level 2 trauma centers by comparing their locations in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles with the racial and ethnic composition of each city.
According to the study, LA fared the worst, with 89 percent of majority black communities located in trauma deserts. Chicago ranked second, with 73 percent – though the landscape has changed since the opening last year of a new trauma center at the University of Chicago. In New York City, that figure dropped to 14 percent.
Trauma deserts in Chicago were found primarily on the city’s South Side. “In Chicago, the precision of the inequality was really striking,” said study author Dr. Elizabeth Tung, a primary care physician and instructor of medicine at UChicago Medicine. “It’s such a clear delineation by race.”
Tung said she found the disparities in LA interesting because there are few predominately African-American communities left in that city. (There were only 27 such communities in LA in 2015, compared to 280 in Chicago and 455 in NYC, according to the study.)
Before UChicago opened its trauma center in Hyde Park, area residents had 8.5 higher odds of living in a trauma desert than residents living in the city’s predominately white communities. The new trauma center reduced this disparity to 1.6 times, according to researchers.
“Since we opened the trauma center nearly one year ago in May, the disparity in access to adult trauma care has been significantly lessened for African-Americans in Chicago,” said Dr. Selwyn Rogers, professor of surgery and director of UChicago Medicine’s trauma center, in a statement.
UChicago Medicine has treated more than 2,000 trauma patients since it began offering Level 1 adult trauma care in 2018 – something it hadn’t offered since 1988.
The area was previously served by the Michael Reese Hospital trauma center in Bronzeville until its closure in 1991, at which point South Side residents were often forced to travel as many as 10 miles to get urgent medical care.
Researchers hope their findings highlight the lingering impact of structural inequalities in American cities. They say planning for new trauma centers should include an assessment of how a new facility can help address racial equity.