An antidiscrimination watchdog has issued the Department of Health with a formal legal notice for failing to meet its race equality responsibilities.
The move by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) follows a series of warnings over the way the department operates, and means it could face legal action unless it improves its procedures to address "long-standing inequalities in the provision of health services".
It comes after a commission report found 15 Whitehall departments are failing to meet their obligations under race equality laws, with the Department of Health singled out because of its poor race equality impact assessments.
The CRE said: "We have repeatedly notified the Department for Health of the scale of our concerns and highlighted the risks of treating this lightly.
"They have failed to adequately address these concerns.
"Enforcement action is always the last step for the CRE, but the commission feels that it is necessary in light of the department's failings over the last five years."
Certain health issues can have a disproportionate effect on minority ethnic groups for a variety of cultural, dietary or genetic reasons.
For example, figures show that more than one in five (21%) of all mental health inpatients are from an ethnic minority, with Afro-Caribbean men seven times more likely to be sectioned than white men.