Health equity is achieved when everyone can attain their full potential for health and well-being. Health and health equity are determined by the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, play, and age, as well as biological determinants.
What Does Health Equity Mean?
Health equity means that every individual has an equal opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. People’s race, economic circumstances, or gender should not affect their access to such basics as healthy food or proper medical care, nor should anyone’s geographic region determine the level of health education available to them. However, today these factors influence our nation’s disease rates, life spans, disabilities, and mortality rates.
According to the National Vital Statistics System, life expectancy can vary by up to seven years between racial and ethnic populations. Unequal distribution of resources contributes to many such alarming disparities. While health differences will always exist, the American Public Health Association (APHA) explains that we can avoid those “linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage.”
Why Is Health Equity Important?
Health equity matters because imbalances in health access lead to differences in life expectancy and quality of life; health disparities also weigh heavily on the economy. Inequities in health access cost the U.S. billions of dollars in lost productivity and excess medical expenses. Failing to address the urgent need to establish health equity hurts everyone.
The barriers to achieving health equity are great but not insurmountable. Public health professionals stand on the front lines of the fight. With ingenuity and tenacity, they can help eradicate unjust and unnecessary disparities. APHA describes the importance of health equity and outlines six strategies that should guide the work of public health professionals:
- Explicitly identify communities who suffer health disparities.
- Confront racial biases in policies and behaviors with training and education.
- Address how housing, employment, transportation, and other determinants affect health equity.
- Implement health equity goals in organizations while also ensuring internal organizational practices do not contribute to health disparities.
- Engage affected communities to actively participate in solving the problems they face.
- Assess the impact of initiatives meant to reduce health inequities.
Barriers Preventing Access to Health Care
To answer the question “What is health equity?” and develop a comprehensive understanding of how to achieve it, we can examine the major factors that create health disparities and prevent people from accessing care.
What we eat and the quality of our food directly impact both our physical and mental development. Poor nutrition can negatively affect growth and prevent us from reaching our full potential. Poor diets result in weakened immune systems, and increasing susceptibility to communicable diseases, and poor diets contribute to noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, stroke, and cancer. However, a proper diet can help stave off these unfortunate health outcomes.
What happens when a community lacks access to fresh and healthy food? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poor access to nutritious foods leads to unhealthy diets.
Today, many rural, minority and low-income communities in the U.S. are known as food deserts. Food deserts are areas with few local sources of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. Instead, food stores in food deserts sell mostly high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods. People who live in food deserts find it more difficult to eat a healthy diet, which accounts for their higher rates of negative health outcomes.
For instance, living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. A study published in Circulation suggests food deserts might be to blame. According to the research, those living more than a mile from fresh food sources develop coronary calcium build-up, a leading risk factor for heart disease, faster than those living outside of food deserts.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), up to 17.4 percent of the population lives in food deserts. Public health professionals work to combat this situation by advocating for programs, such as the federal government’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, that support fresh food sources like grocery stores and farmers’ markets within food deserts.
Equitable access to good nutrition also involves increasing awareness about healthy food choices. Public health advocates play a key role in helping communities gain healthier nutrition habits. In addition, public health advocates promote government programs that help low-income communities afford the cost of healthy foods.
Data and research from the CDC indicate that people who live in certain geographic areas — identified down to the zip code level — can have lower life expectancies than those of their immediate neighbors. Public health professionals address the following disadvantages:
People without cars need reliable, affordable public transportation to access employment, child care, and health care. Individuals whose access to transportation is problematic may miss out on opportunities and are challenged to meet the basic health care and nutrition needs.
Crime affects low-income neighborhoods at high rates, and exposure to violence produces many health and behavioral issues. For example, children who live with the threat of violence experience increased levels of depression and anxiety and show increased aggression. Over time, they are often at greater risk for substance abuse.
Those living in poverty face greater obstacles to accessing medical care and are less likely to be treated with newer drugs or advanced technologies. Higher stress environments may expose them to behavioral risk factors such as smoking, drinking, and obesity.
- Environmental hazards
Low-income individuals and minority communities often experience greater exposure to air pollution and lead-based paint. They are also more likely to live near toxic waste facilities and landfills and have reduced access to clean drinking water.