AAPI Heritage Month: The ‘Model Minority Myth’ and its negative impact on health disparities

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

The month of May marks Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time where we celebrate, honor, and reflect upon the vast contributions members of the AAPI community have made to our collective society. The AAPI community comprises more than 23 million individuals with origins from 20+ countries, who speak more than 200 languages or dialects, and it is the fastest growing subset of the population.

The AAPI community is one that harbors complex cultural and historical narratives, and varied generational traumas, such as colonialism, war, and the trials of immigration. The AAPI community’s resilience against these factors, while commendable, has contributed to the myth of the “Model Minority,” and has led to a host of social and health inequities. The model minority myth is one rooted in “positive” stereotypes. It is the assumption that deems AAPI individuals as docile, over-achieving, high-earning, and well-educated—denoting AAPI individuals as exemplars to other communities of color. While at face value these qualities are considered desirable, they tend to relegate an astoundingly diverse community to a monolith, resulting in a detrimental impact on their overall wellbeing.

Due to these unrealistic cultural standards, AAPI consumers face a host of internal and external barriers when interacting with the healthcare system, and are often deterred from seeking necessary care. According to a 2019 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study, AAPIs have the lowest help-seeking rate for mental health services than any racial or ethnic group. Cultural identity, faith, stigma, and fear contribute to lower utilization of mental health services. Other systemic barriers such as disparities in access to culturally competent care also influence underutilization.

AAPIs are also the only racial or ethnic group for whom cancer is the leading cause of death. Despite facing a confluence of cancer risks, due to unique exposures and environmental factors, AAPIs are screened significantly less for cancers compared to other Americans. Because the model minority myth implies that AAPIs are “better off,” screening, public health, and cultural needs are often masked.

This is best demonstrated by the case of Susan Shinagawa, a leading Asian American breast cancer activist and cancer survivor, whose multiple attempts to obtain screening for a suspected lump in her breast was denied, due to the belief that “Asian women don’t get breast cancer.”

The pandemic has illuminated disparities experienced by AAPIs, such as being overrepresented among frontline healthcare workers, increasing risk of exposure to COVID-19. As a result, case fatality among AAPI healthcare workers is three times greater than their white counterparts. AAPIs also tend to live in multigenerational households, more than other minorities, where 29 percent of AAPI households consist of two or more generational families, further increasing risk of household transmission. Approximately 30 percent of AAPIs have limited English proficiency, augmenting overall barriers to care and government relief resources. This disparity has been especially cumbersome for AAPI consumers seeking telehealth, an integral part of our lives throughout the pandemic, where 50 percent of AAPIs with limited English proficiency were less likely to utilize telehealth than individuals with English proficiency.

One way to dispel the model minority myth and encourage greater health equity for AAPI consumers, is to disaggregate racial and ethnicity data in research studies. Disaggregation of data simply means breaking data into smaller, more precise segments. For example, recent United States census data reveal that AAPIs were less likely overall to live in poverty. However, when that data is disaggregated, it shows that Hmong, Bhutanese, and Burmese Americans experience higher incidence of poverty, in contrast to the greater AAPI community. Disaggregating data not only paints a more accurate picture regarding the different social and demographic characteristics that impact varied health statuses within the community, it influences proper allocation of community resources.

Disaggregation of data can only also happen when there is a prioritization of AAPI participants in research. The most illuminating example of this is highlighted by a 2019 study, which revealed that in the past 26 years, only 0.17 percent of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) budget was allocated to research focused on the AAPI community. These gaps in funding have led to a paucity in data necessary for public health officials and policy makers to meaningfully address AAPI-specific health disparities. A lack of representation in research impacts how AAPI consumers seek, access, and utilize healthcare. It also impacts the greater community public health goals, impacting health equity for everyone.

Greater investments in culturally competent care, AAPI-focused research, and preventive services, such as screening and early intervention, can help improve overall health outcomes for AAPI consumers. The National Consumers League commends the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts, such as the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and the establishment of a subcommittee on Structural Drivers of Health Inequity and Xenophobia, which aim to ensure the federal government’s response to COVID-19 mitigates anti-Asian xenophobia and bias. These measures are critical in addressing structural inequities experienced by the AAPI community, enhancing community health outcomes as a whole.