Measuring Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Health Care: Methods and Practical Issues


Address correspondence to Benjamin Lê Cook, Ph.D., M.P.H., Senior Scientist, Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research, Instructor, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, 120 Beacon St., 4th Floor, Somerville, MA 02143; e-mail:



To review methods of measuring racial/ethnic health care disparities.

Study Design

Identification and tracking of racial/ethnic disparities in health care will be advanced by application of a consistent definition and reliable empirical methods. We have proposed a definition of racial/ethnic health care disparities based in the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) Unequal Treatment report, which defines disparities as all differences except those due to clinical need and preferences. After briefly summarizing the strengths and critiques of this definition, we review methods that have been used to implement it. We discuss practical issues that arise during implementation and expand these methods to identify sources of disparities. We also situate the focus on methods to measure racial/ethnic health care disparities (an endeavor predominant in the United States) within a larger international literature in health outcomes and health care inequality.

Empirical Application

We compare different methods of implementing the IOM definition on measurement of disparities in any use of mental health care and mental health care expenditures using the 2004–2008 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.


Disparities analysts should be aware of multiple methods available to measure disparities and their differing assumptions. We prefer a method concordant with the IOM definition.