What is health equity?



Health equity means everyone has an equal opportunity to live a healthy life.

Healthy People 2020, an initiative of the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, defines the approach to health equity like this: “Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.” 

A health disparity exists when a particular health outcome is seen to a greater or lesser extent in one population than in others. For example, among Medicare recipients, Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent among Black and Latinx populations than among whites (Source: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services); therefore, we say a health disparity exists between these populations in regard to diabetes.

healthcare disparity exists when a particular population does not have access to the same healthcare services and/or the same quality of healthcare services that others do.

Everything affects your health.

Working to achieve health equity means recognizing how a variety of factors affect a person’s opportunity to live a healthy life:

  • Race and ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual identity
  • Disability status or whether you have special healthcare needs
  • Geographic location (whether you live an urban or rural area)

Plus whether you have access to:

  • quality education;
  • nutritious food;
  • decent housing;
  • reliable (and affordable) public transportation;
  • clean water and air;
  • health insurance; and
  • high-quality, affordable healthcare services delivered by culturally sensitive providers.

(Source: Healthy People 2020) 

This second list, and other factors like systemic discrimination and racism, are often referred to as “social determinants of health.” 

The Health Equity Institute at the University of San Francisco has some great resources available online for understanding health equity, health disparities, and the social determinants of health, including this three-minute video.

Equal access to high-quality healthcare is an important part of health equity.

Having access to healthcare is important because it allows you to prevent diseases you don’t have and manage the diseases you do have, which gives you a longer life (and better quality of life) and lets you work, take care of your family, and generally be a productive member of society. But having access to healthcare involves more than having a hospital emergency room near where you live.

To truly have access to care: 

  • You must be able to gain entry to the healthcare system–i.e., you need to be able to pay for your care, which usually means having health insurance.
  • There must be a provider located within a reasonable distance from where you live or work who offers the type of care you need. (If you’re an adult who needs a primary care doctor to help you manage your high blood pressure, it’s useless if the only providers near you are a dermatologist and a couple of pediatricians.)
  • That provider must be someone you can trust and can communicate with–including someone who speaks your language if you’re more comfortable speaking something other than English.

(Source: Healthy People 2020)

Without all three of these things present, you don’t truly have access to care. Because if all three of these things aren’t in place, even you do get some care, it won’t be the best care for you. And if you’re not getting the best care, you are not going to have the best health outcomes. That is why ensuring equal access to healthcare for all is absolutely critical to achieving health equity.

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