Falling behind: Allegheny County mortality rates reflect racial disparities

by Amelia Winger, PublicSource

Allegheny County ranks among the worst urban areas in the country in key measures of mortality, according to data assembled by two of the region’s top health experts. 

Among the nation’s 43 most populated counties, Allegheny County slipped from having the 31st age-adjusted mortality rate in 1990 to the 39th in 2019.

While mortality overall has improved; Allegheny County is squarely in the lower ranks in a country already boasting the highest mortality rate among developed nations worldwide, according to the analysis of 30 years of data. 

The rankings may seem counterintuitive for a region whose modern reputation is staked upon the success of its higher education institutions and medical facilities, which produce research and care that should theoretically be extending lives, said Dr. Donald Burke, a professor of epidemiology and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. 

“We have outstanding healthcare systems. We have outstanding universities. We’re doing OK economically. We’ve got a political leadership class that cares. We’ve got active philanthropy. How is it with all of these assets that our ranking has been decreasing?” Burke said. 

The poor rankings reflect stark racial disparities in the county, where mortality rates for Black residents rank even worse than for the population as a whole. 

Burke and Dr. Kenneth Thompson, a practicing psychiatrist who serves as the chief medical officer of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Leadership Council, released data to PublicSource to raise awareness of the disparities in the county’s mortality rates and call on leaders to address the underlying inequalities driving the low rankings.

For every county, they calculated the number of deaths per 100,000 residents each year from 1990 to 2019, adjusting for the age distribution of each county’s population — a measurement known as age-adjusted mortality. A lower ranking reflects a higher rate of mortality.

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