Author: Aakash Anandjiwala
Zip codes are an essential part in indicating where people go to school, where they work, and where they live. This is also a reason for why almost every application includes a section to input your zip code. But, in reality, zip code can greatly determine people's access to healthcare; this social determinant can be used as a great indicator of socioeconomic status, life expectancy, and more importantly, social injustice. Zip code can also contribute to environmental racism which affects people of color disproportionately, especially on a biological basis, with differences in hospitalization due to certain diseases (ex: higher rates of asthma in crammed, polluted communities). “In various cities across America, average life expectancies in certain communities are 20-30 years shorter than those mere miles away” (Graham).
Healthcare professionals have continually pointed to zip codes as the greatest predictor for life expectancy. This has gone to be supported by data such as an eighteen-year difference in life expectancy in people who live only six miles apart in Dallas (HealthLeadUSA). “Residents of the mainly African American west end live to 67 years on average, while their counterparts in the eastern half of Jefferson County, which is more than 70 percent white, have an average life expectancy of 82 years (both genders combined)” (HealthLeadUSA).
Life expectancy in residents can also be linked to what they are surrounded by within their zip code. For example, when residents live near industrial plants or noxious waste facilities, there is a greater likelihood for being hospitalized for conditions, such as asthma, and a possible greater likelihood for this to happen in communities of color because they tend to be most affected by environmental racism.
In current times, the media has continued to report how the current pandemic of COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the Black communities and other communities of color (Today). In the Today article, Jen Laskey goes on to point out how the infection rates for not only COVID-19 are higher in communities of color, but but also HIV. Pulling from a study done in August 2020, Jen Laskey states how “researchers concluded that residential segregation, structural racism and social determinants of health are the key factors driving higher rates of infection in communities of color” (Today).
There are ways to combat the disparities based on zip code and environmental racism, however. For example, looking towards voting for the correct leaders who want to shift the current narrative on zip codes and healthcare and organizing a way to spread information about a single-payer health care system (which allows for healthcare to be equitable and not being an out of pocket expense) can help make necessary change. The most important thing we can do at the moment is educate people across the nation about a healthy lifestyles while also allowing a diverse profile of healthcare professionals to prosper in the future.
Graham GN. Why Your ZIP Code Matters More Than Your Genetic Code: Promoting Healthy Outcomes from Mother to Child. Breastfeed Med. 2016 Oct;11:396-7. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2016.0113. Epub 2016 Aug 11. PMID: 27513279.