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WCM-Q research: minorities disproportionately affected by heat-related illness

Dr. Grigory Ostrovskiy, left, Rana Abualsaud and Dr. Ziyad Mahfoud.
Dr. Grigory Ostrovskiy, left, Rana Abualsaud and Dr. Ziyad Mahfoud.

WCM-Q research has shown that some ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by heat-related illness.

The research, conducted by Dr. Grigory Ostrovskiy, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Ziyad Mahfoud, Associate Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research, and student Rana Abualsaud, showed that emergency room visits in California for heat-related illness like heat exhaustion and heatstroke rose by 35 percent over a decade. The increase was higher among African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics than in the overall population.

The study, which was published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, found that between 2005 and 2015 heat-related emergency department visits rose by an average of 67 percent for African Americans, 53 percent for Asian Americans and 63 percent for Hispanics. These visits increased by only 27 percent among whites. The rates for African Americans and Asians were always higher than for the overall population across the decade, while Hispanic populations and white populations had similar increases in rates until 2013, after which the rates diverged.

The study notes: “The overall trend shows an increase in presentation during the last few years for all ethnicities, which may be explained by a common risk factor such as increase in peak temperature and heat intensity. The disproportionate increase [among minorities] prompts the search for ethnicity-based factors that affect heat vulnerability.”

The research was based on data drawn from the California Environmental Health Tracking Program, which logs emergency room visits and hospitalizations due to heat-related medical conditions. California has particularly high-quality, freely available data on heat-related illness, making the state an attractive target for researchers in this area. The WCM-Q team aimed to gain insights from the California data that could help them understand the pattern of emergency room visits caused by heat-related illness in Qatar.

The study suggested a number of factors that might account for the disparity, such as lower socioeconomic status, living in densely populated areas with poor access to air conditioning, and higher rates of employment in outdoor and physically demanding labor. The research has now gained mainstream attention after being featured in a report by Reuters, the global news agency.

Dr. Ostrovskiy said: “We are glad this research has been highlighted by Reuters. Global warming will lead to more heat-related illness in the future and further research is needed to make sure we understand the factors that lead to the more vulnerable populations being disproportionately affected. This study is also relevant to Qatar as it shows how an environmental tracking program could be very useful in this country, which can get very hot.” 

Dr. Mahfoud emphasized that results of such studies can help policy makers allocate appropriate funds to address such health disparities by understanding the factors and establishing interventions for prevention.

Class of 2019 student Rana Abualsaud presented the research at the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM), a leading professional body for academic Emergency Physicians.

The authors noted limitations of the study, titled Ethnicity-Based Inequality in Heat-Related Illness is on the Rise in California, including inconsistencies in the quality of data collection over time and across different counties, changes in access to care, and migration of individuals to hotter counties within or outside California.