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Health Disparities Defined

What are "cancer health disparities"?

The NCI defines "cancer health disparities" as "differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality, and burden of cancer and related adverse health conditions that exist among specific population groups in the United States."

What is a "health disparity"?

The first attempt at an official definition for "health disparities" was developed in September 1999, in response to a White House initiative. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), under the direction of then-director Dr. Harold Varmus, convened an NIH-wide working group, charged with developing a strategic plan for reducing health disparities. That group developed the first NIH definition of "health disparities":

Health disparities are differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality, and burden of diseases and other adverse health conditions that exist among specific population groups in the United States.

In 2000, United States Public Law 106-525, also known as the "Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act," which authorized the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, provided a legal definition of health disparities:

A population is a health disparity population if there is a significant disparity in the overall rate of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity, mortality or survival rates in the population as compared to the health status of the general population.
Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act United States Public Law 106-525 (2000), p. 2498

Since the passage of U.S. Public Law 106-525, many agencies have incorporated this definition into their own materials, such as this excerpt from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health website:

Different public and private agencies may have different definitions of a 'health disparity' for their own program-related purposes, but these definitions tend to have several things in common. In general, health disparities are defined as significant differences between one population and another. The Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act of 2000, which authorizes several HHS programs, describes these disparities as differences in "the overall rate of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity, mortality or survival rates." There are several factors that contribute to health disparities. Many different populations are affected by disparities including racial and ethnic minorities, residents of rural areas, women, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

In 1997, there was also a Federal Register Notice released titled Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity, which breaks down the definitions of each term as follows:

  • Race: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White
  • Ethnicity: Hispanic or Latino, Not Hispanic or Latino

Under the combined format of collecting data, the definitions are separated into six minimum categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.


Select Cancer Facts and Figures

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Updated: 05/15/13