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What is health equity?

Last updated

27 June 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

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A person's health is arguably the most important thing they have. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same access to healthcare resources. Health equity is an essential concept for discovering and closing those care gaps.

Health equity is the principle that everyone should have an equal opportunity to maintain a high level of health, regardless of their social, economic, or demographic background. 

Pursuing this principle involves concrete goals to eliminate health disparities and inequities. It’s vital to address the root cause of these disparities and promote fairness in medical treatment.

What are the principles of health equity?

Several factors can result in health disparities, so reducing or eliminating those inequities needs a diverse plan of attack. 

Here are some principles that guide efforts for a more equitable healthcare system:

Fairness and justice

Health equity strives to ensure everyone has equal access to the healthcare they need. 

Often, unjust and avoidable differences in health outcomes among population groups drive the disparities. An equitable health initiative aims to root out and eliminate these barriers.

Non-discrimination

Discrimination comes in many forms and can target someone’s: 

  • Race

  • Ethnicity

  • Gender

  • Socioeconomic status

  • Age

  • Disability status

  • Education level

Health equity aims to remove those prejudices and biases from the system.

Social determinants of health

A person's income and education can harm their health outcomes beyond overt or subconscious bias. People who don't have the knowledge or means to maintain a healthy lifestyle often suffer poor outcomes. 

Any policy focused on health equity must be aware of these factors and address them.

Proportionate universalism

Some population groups are at a greater disadvantage than others. 

Proportionate universalism is the idea that decision-makers should target interventions and resources toward those who will benefit the most. 

Distributing resources proportionate to need ensures more people have fair outcomes.

Intersectoral collaboration

Achieving equal outcomes requires collaboration and coordination between several sectors, like social services, housing providers, and the healthcare industry. Helping the disadvantaged is a group effort. 

Health equity programs focus on facilitating these communications.

Empowerment and participation

Some people may not be as actively involved in their health as they could be. 

Health equity seeks to empower people to become active participants in health-related decisions.

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Health disparities

A few people are lucky enough to have access to all the healthcare they need at prices they can easily afford. Not everyone enjoys those luxuries, though. 

Various roadblocks can prevent someone from receiving adequate healthcare, forming disparities.

Common causes of health disparities include:

Socioeconomic factors

Various socioeconomic factors can create a gap in health outcomes. Reduced incomes, lower education levels, and employment problems make it much harder to eat well, secure safe housing, and obtain goods and services that improve health outcomes.

Limited access to healthcare

Geographic distance and limited transportation options can limit people's access to the healthcare providers they need. 

Little or no insurance and high healthcare costs can compound this issue, making it even harder to access quality healthcare.

Health literacy and communication

Health literacy refers to the ability to understand and use health information to make informed decisions. Language barriers, cultural differences, and other communication problems can cause misunderstandings, resulting in inadequate care and worse outcomes.

Discrimination and stigma

Although society has come a long way, there’s still discrimination against characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. 

Stigma and bias can lead to incorrect health assumptions and reduced trust in healthcare providers.

Systemic and structural factors

These include factors such as: 

  • Institutional racism

  • Socioeconomic inequalities

  • Unequal distribution of resources

  • Inadequate representation within the healthcare system

These often stem from historical inequities, policies, and practices that society’s yet to correct. 

Lack of data and research

Society is only beginning to address health disparities, so good data and research on the topic are lacking. 

Minority populations are typically underrepresented in research studies, slowing progress. Without accurate metrics, disparities are harder to identify and track.

How to measure equity of access in healthcare

Tracking progress in health equity initiatives requires measuring access. 

We can use these six metrics to measure equity of access:

  1. Utilization rates: At what rate are various population groups visiting hospitals, getting routine checkups, and attending screening appointments?

  2. Geographic accessibility: How far away are vital health services from various geographic areas?

  3. Health insurance coverage: What percentage of a subpopulation is covered by quality health insurance?

  4. Timeliness of care: How long are people waiting for emergency visits, regular appointments, or specialized care?

  5. Affordability: What is the out-of-pocket financial burden for healthcare among various subpopulations?

  6. Patient satisfaction: How satisfied are members of population groups with the healthcare services they receive?

Balancing equity and efficiency

Equity efforts that don't balance with efficiency will worsen the healthcare system for everyone. 

Decision-makers must take great care to ensure equal access and outcomes while maximizing resource allocation and minimizing waste. Getting the balance right means careful consideration of trade-offs. 

They must craft policies with a systems approach that promotes fairness in ways that don't bog the system down and cause issues rather than improvements. 

How can the healthcare sector advance health equity?

While health equity must look at every factor that can lead to disparities, the industry can take several steps to improve equitable outcomes:

  • Identifying implicit biases and cultural blindspots: Doctors understanding the various cultures they’re treating is key to effective communication.

  • Expanding healthcare infrastructure: Underserved areas represent an opportunity for healthcare businesses to break into new markets and increase access in those areas.

  • Community engagement: Individual communities’ needs and barriers will differ from their neighbors: Community outreach can help providers better serve those communities.

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