Health equity

Health equity refers to the study and causes of differences in the quality of health and healthcare across different populations.[1] Health equity is different from health equality, as it refers only to the absence of disparities in controllable or remediable aspects of health. It is not possible to work towards complete equality in health, as there are some factors of health that are beyond human influence.[2] Inequity implies some kind of social injustice. Thus, if one population dies younger than another because of genetic differences, a non-remediable/controllable factor, we tend to say that there is a health inequality. On the other hand, if a population has a lower life expectancy due to lack of access to medications, the situation would be classified as a health inequity.[3] These inequities may include differences in the "presence of disease, health outcomes, or access to health care"[4] between populations with a different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.[5]

Health equity falls into two major categories: horizontal equity, the equal treatment of individuals or groups in the same circumstances; and vertical equity, the principle that individuals who are unequal should be treated differently according to their level of need.[6] Disparities in the quality of health across populations are well-documented globally in both developed and developing nations. The importance of equitable access to healthcare has been cited as crucial to achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals.[7]

Socioeconomic status

Socioeconomic status is both a strong predictor of health, and a key factor underlying health inequities across populations. Poor socioeconomic status has the capacity to profoundly limit the capabilities of an individual or population, manifesting itself through deficiencies in both financial and social capital.[8] It is clear how a lack of financial capital can compromise the capacity to maintain good health. In the UK, prior to the institution of the NHS reforms in the early 2000s, it was shown that income was an important determinant of access to healthcare resources.[9] Maintenance of good health through the utilization of proper healthcare resources can be quite costly and therefore unaffordable to certain populations.[10][11][12]

In China, for instance, the collapse of the Cooperative Medical System left many of the rural poor uninsured and unable to access the resources necessary to maintain good health. Increases in the cost of medical treatment made healthcare increasingly unaffordable for these populations. This issue was further perpetuated by the rising income inequality in the Chinese population. Poor Chinese were often unable to undergo necessary hospitalization and failed to complete treatment regimens, resulting in poorer health outcomes.[13]

Similarly, in Tanzania, it was demonstrated that wealthier families were far more likely to bring their children to a healthcare provider: a significant step towards stronger healthcare.[14] Some scholars have noted that unequal income distribution itself can be a cause of poorer health for a society as a result of "underinvestment in social goods, such as public education and health care; disruption of social cohesion and the erosion of social capital".[12]

The role of socioeconomic status in health equity extends beyond simple monetary restrictions on an individual's purchasing power. In fact, social capital plays a significant role in the health of individuals and their communities. It has been shown that those who are better connected to the resources provided by the individuals and communities around them (those with more social capital) live longer lives.[15] The segregation of communities on the basis of income occurs in nations worldwide and has a significant impact on quality of health as a result of a decrease in social capital for those trapped in poor neighborhoods.[10][16][17][18][19] Social interventions, which seek to improve healthcare by enhancing the social resources of a community, are therefore an effective component of campaigns to improve a community's health. A 1998 epidemiological study showed that community healthcare approaches fared far better than individual approaches in the prevention of heart disease mortality.[20]


Education is an important factor in healthcare utilization, though it is closely intertwined with economic status. An individual may not go to a medical professional or seek care if they don’t know the ills of their failure to do so, or the value of proper treatment.[21] In Tajikistan, since the nation gained its independence, the likelihood of giving birth at home has increased rapidly among women with lower educational status. Education also has a significant impact on the quality of prenatal and maternal healthcare. Mothers with primary education consulted a doctor during pregnancy at significantly lower rates (72%) when compared to those with a secondary education (77%), technical training (88%) or a higher education (100%).[22] There is also evidence for a correlation between socioeconomic status and health literacy; one study showed that wealthier Tanzanian families were more likely to recognize disease in their children than those that were coming from lower income backgrounds.[14]

Spatial disparities in health

For some populations, access to healthcare and health resources is physically limited, resulting in health inequities. For instance, an individual might be physically incapable of traveling the distances required to reach healthcare services, or long distances can make seeking regular care unappealing despite the potential benefits.[21]

Global concentrations of healthcare resources, as depicted by the number of physicians per 100,000 individuals, by country.

Costa Rica, for example, has demonstrable health spatial inequities with 12–14% of the population living in areas where healthcare is inaccessible. Inequity has decreased in some areas of the nation as a result of the work of healthcare reform programs, however those regions not served by the programs have experienced a slight increase in inequity.[23]

China experienced a serious decrease in spatial health equity following the Chinese economic revolution in the 1980s as a result of the degradation of the Cooperative Medical System (CMS). The CMS provided an infrastructure for the delivery of healthcare to rural locations, as well as a framework to provide funding based upon communal contributions and government subsidies. In its absence, there was a significant decrease in the quantity of healthcare professionals (35.9%), as well as functioning clinics (from 71% to 55% of villages over 14 years) in rural areas, resulting in inequitable healthcare for rural populations.[19][24] The significant poverty experienced by rural workers (some earning less than 1 USD per day) further limits access to healthcare, and results in malnutrition and poor general hygiene, compounding the loss of healthcare resources.[13] The loss of the CMS has had noticeable impacts on life expectancy, with rural regions such as areas of Western China experiencing significantly lower life expectancies.[25][26]

Similarly, populations in rural Tajikistan experience spatial health inequities. A study by Jane Falkingham noted that physical access to healthcare was one of the primary factors influencing quality of maternal healthcare. Further, many women in rural areas of the country did not have adequate access to healthcare resources, resulting in poor maternal and neonatal care. These rural women were, for instance, far more likely to give birth in their homes without medical oversight.[22]

Ethnic and racial disparities

See also: Race and health

Along with the socioeconomic factor of health disparities, race is another key factor. The United States historically had large disparities in health and access to adequate healthcare between races, and current evidence supports the notion that these racially centered disparities continue to exist and are a significant social health issue.[27] The disparities in access to adequate healthcare include differences in the quality of care based on race and overall insurance coverage based on race. The Journal of the American Medical Association identifies race as a significant determinant in the level of quality of care, with ethnic minority groups receiving less intensive and lower quality care. This is in part because members of ethnic minorities such as African Americans are either earning low incomes, or living below the poverty line. In a 2007 Census Bureau, African American families made an average of $33,916, while their white counterparts made an average of $54,920.[28] Due to a lack of affordable health care, the African American death rate reveals that African Americans have a higher rate of dying from treatable or preventable causes. According to a study conducted in 2005 by the Office of Minority Health—a U.S. Department of Health—African American men were 30% more likely than white men to die from heart disease.[28] Also African American women were 34% more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts.[28]

There are also considerable racial disparities in access to insurance coverage, with ethnic minorities generally having less insurance coverage than non-ethnic minorities. For example, Hispanic Americans tend to have less insurance coverage than white Americans and as a result receive less regular medical care. The level of insurance coverage is directly correlated with access to healthcare including preventative and ambulatory care.[27] A 2010 study on racial and ethnic disparities in health done by the Institute of Medicine has shown that the aforementioned disparities cannot solely be accounted for in terms of certain demographic characteristics like: insurance status, household income, education, age, geographic location and quality of living conditions. Even when the researchers corrected for these factors, the disparities persist.[29] Slavery has contributed to disparate health outcomes for generations of African Americans in the United States.[30]

Ethnic health inequities also appear in nations across the African continent. A survey of the child mortality of major ethnic groups across 11 African nations (Central African Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia) was published in 2000 by the WHO. The study described the presence of significant ethnic parities in the child mortality rates among children younger than 5 years old, as well as in education and vaccine use.[31] In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid still manifests itself as a differential access to social services, including healthcare based upon race and social class, and the resultant health inequities.[32][33] Further, evidence suggests systematic disregard of indigenous populations in a number of countries. The Pygmys of Congo, for instance, are excluded from government health programs, discriminated against during public health campaigns, and receive poorer overall healthcare.[34]

In a survey of five European countries (Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, Italy, and France), a 1995 survey noted that only Sweden provided access to translators for 100% of those who needed it, while the other countries lacked this service potentially compromising healthcare to non-native populations. Given that non-natives composed a considerable section of these nations (6%, 17%, 3%, 1%, and 6% respectively), this could have significant detrimental effects on the health equity of the nation. In France, an older study noted significant differences in access to healthcare between native French populations, and non-French/migrant populations based upon health expenditure; however this was not fully independent of poorer economic and working conditions experienced by these populations.[35]

A 1996 study of race-based health inequity in Australia revealed that Aborigines experienced higher rates of mortality than non-Aborigine populations. Aborigine populations experienced 10 times greater mortality in the 30–40 age range; 2.5 times greater infant mortality rate, and 3 times greater age standardized mortality rate. Rates of diarrheal diseases and tuberculosis are also significantly greater in this population (16 and 15 times greater respectively), which is indicative of the poor healthcare of this ethnic group. At this point in time, the parities in life expectancy at birth between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples were highest in Australia, when compared to the US, Canada and New Zealand.[36][37] In South America, indigenous populations faced similarly poor health outcomes with maternal and infant mortality rates that were significantly higher (up to 3 to 4 times greater) than the national average.[38] The same pattern of poor indigenous healthcare continues in India, where indigenous groups were shown to experience greater mortality at most stages of life, even when corrected for environmental effects.[39]

LGBT minority group health disparities

Sexuality has become a major source of discrimination and inequity in health. Homosexual, bisexual, and transgender populations experience a wide range of health problems related to their sexuality and gender identity.[40][41][42] One of the egregious inequities that faces LGBT individuals is discrimination from healthcare workers or institutions. In a study of the quality of healthcare for South African MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), a cohort of individuals were interviewed about their health experiences. The researchers found that homosexually identified MSM felt that their access to healthcare was limited by their inability to find clinics that employed healthcare workers who did not discriminate based upon their sexuality. They often faced "homophobic verbal harassment from healthcare workers when presenting for STI treatment". Further, those MSM who did not identify as homosexuals did not feel comfortable discussing—and did not disclose—their sexual activity with healthcare workers, limiting the quality of their sexual healthcare.[43] Similarly, a survey of the United States revealed that transgender individuals faced a significant level of discrimination with 19% of individuals having experienced a healthcare worker refuse care because of their gender, 28% having faced harassment from a healthcare worker, 2% having faced violence, and 50% having a doctor who was not able or qualified to provide transgender care.[44]

Furthermore, healthcare for LGBT populations is hindered by a lack of medical research on such groups. Without the appropriate studies, it is difficult to assess what the proper strategies are for treatment of these groups. For instance, a review of medical literature regarding LGBT patients revealed that there is a significant gap in our understanding of breast cancer, which is more prevalent among lesbian and bisexual women. It is unclear whether this is a result of probability or another preventable cause. Similarly, the review notes that it is generally assumed that these groups of women have a lower incidence of cervical cancer than their heterosexual counterparts, and as a result they have low rates of screening, despite the fact that it is unclear whether they are actually at a decreased risk for the disease.[45] In addition, it is difficult to conduct retrospective epidemiological studies on LGBT populations as a result of the practice that sexual orientation is not noted on death certificates.[46]

Healthcare equity and sex

In the United States, women have better access to healthcare than many other places in the world, in part because they have higher rates of health insurance. In one study of a population group in Harlem, 86% of women reported having health insurance (privatized or publicly assisted), while only 74% of men reported having any health insurance. This trend in women reporting higher rates of insurance coverage is not unique to this population and is representative of the general population of the US.[47] In China, gender is a significant determining factor in health, though disparities have lessened in recent years as females start receiving higher quality care.[48][49] In India, gender inequities in health start in early childhood, as many families provide better nutrition for boys than girls in the interest of maximizing future productivity (as boys are generally seen as breadwinners).[50] In addition, boys receive better care, and are hospitalized when seriously ill at a greater rate than girls. The magnitude of these disparities increased with the severity of poverty in a given population.[51] In general the 2012 WDR noted that women in developing nations experienced greater mortality rates than men when comparing developing nations to more developed nations.[52] That said, men do face greater mortality than females in a number of countries as a result of behavior or violence.[53]

Health inequality and environmental influence

Minority populations have increased exposure to environmental hazards that include lack of neighborhood resources, structural and community factors as well as residential segregation that result in a cycle of disease and stress.[54] The environment that surrounds us can influence individual behaviors and lead to poor health choices and therefore outcomes.[55] Minority neighborhoods have been continuously noted to have more fast food chains and fewer grocery stores than predominantly white neighborhoods.[55] These food deserts affect a family’s ability to have easy access to nutritious food for their children. This lack of nutritious food extends beyond the household into the schools that have a variety of vending machines and deliver over processed foods.[55] These environmental condition have social ramifications and in the first time in US history is it projected that the current generation will live shorter lives than their predecessors will.[55]

In addition, minority neighborhoods have various health hazards that result from living close to highways and toxic waste factories or general dilapidated structures and streets.[55] These environmental conditions create varying degrees of health risk from noise pollution, to carcinogenic toxic exposures from asbestos and radon that result in increase chronic disease, morbidity, and mortality.[56] The quality of residential environment such as damaged housing has been shown to increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes, which is reflective of a communities health.[57] Housing conditions can create varying degrees of health risk that lead to complications of birth and long-term consequences in the aging population.[57] In addition, occupational hazards can add to the detrimental effects of poor housing conditions. It has been reported that a greater number of minorities work in jobs that have higher rates of exposure to toxic chemical, dust and fumes.[58]

Racial segregation is another environmental factor that occurs through the discriminatory action of those organizations and working individuals within the real estate industry, whether in the housing markets or rentals. Even though residential segregation is noted in all minority groups, blacks tend to be segregated regardless of income level when compared to Latinos and Asians.[59] Thus, segregation results in minorities clustering in poor neighborhoods that have limited employment, medical care, and educational resources, which is associated with high rates of criminal behavior.[60][61] In addition, segregation affects the health of individual residents because the environment is not conducive to physical exercise due to unsafe neighborhoods that lack recreational facilities and have nonexistent park space.[60] Racial and ethnic discrimination adds an additional element to the environment that individuals have to interact with daily. Individuals that reported discrimination have been shown to have an increase risk of hypertension in addition to other physiological stress related affects.[62] The high magnitude of environmental, structural, socioeconomic stressors leads to further compromise on the psychological and physical being, which leads to poor health and disease.[63]

Individuals living in rural areas, especially poor rural areas, have access to fewer health care resources. Although 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only 9 percent of physicians practice in rural settings. Individuals in rural areas typically must travel longer distances for care, experience long waiting times at clinics, or are unable to obtain the necessary health care they need in a timely manner. Rural areas characterized by a largely Hispanic population average 5.3 physicians per 10,000 residents compared with 8.7 physicians per 10,000 residents in nonrural areas. Financial barriers to access, including lack of health insurance, are also common among the urban poor.[64]

Disparities in access to health care

Reasons for disparities in access to health care are many, but can include the following:

Disparities in quality of health care

Health disparities in the quality of care exist and are based on language and ethnicity/race which includes:

Problems with patient-provider communication

Communication is critical for the delivery of appropriate and effective treatment and care, regardless of a patient’s race, and miscommunication can lead to incorrect diagnosis, improper use of medications, and failure to receive follow-up care. The patient provider relationship is dependent on the ability of both individuals to effectively communicate. Language and culture both play a significant role in communication during a medical visit. Among the patient population, minorities face greater difficulty in communicating with their physicians. Patients when surveyed responded that 19% of the time they have problems communicating with their providers which included understanding doctor, feeling doctor listened, and had questions but did not ask.[75] In contrast, the Hispanic population had the largest problem communicating with their provider, 33% of the time.[75] Communication has been linked to health outcomes, as communication improves so does patient satisfaction which leads to improved compliance and then to improved health outcomes.[76] Quality of care is impacted as a result of an inability to communicate with health care providers. Language plays a pivotal role in communication and efforts need to be taken to ensure excellent communication between patient and provider. Among limited English proficient patients in the United States, the linguistic barrier is even greater. Less than half of non-English speakers who say they need an interpreter during clinical visits report having one. The absence of interpreters during a clinical visit adds to the communication barrier. Furthermore, inability of providers to communicate with limited English proficient patients leads to more diagnostic procedures, more invasive procedures, and over prescribing of medications.[77] Poor communication contributes to poor medical compliance and health outcomes. Many health-related settings provide interpreter services for their limited English proficient patients. This has been helpful when providers do not speak the same language as the patient. However, there is mounting evidence that patients need to communicate with a language concordant physician (not simply an interpreter) to receive the best medical care, bond with the physician, and be satisfied with the care experience.[78][79] Having patient-physician language discordant pairs (i.e. Spanish-speaking patient with an English-speaking physician) may also lead to greater medical expenditures and thus higher costs to the organization.[80] Additional communication problems result from a decrease or lack of cultural competence by providers. It is important for providers to be cognizant of patients’ health beliefs and practices without being judgmental or reacting. Understanding a patients’ view of health and disease is important for diagnosis and treatment. So providers need to assess patients’ health beliefs and practices to improve quality of care.[81] Patient health decisions can be influenced by religious beliefs, mistrust of Western medicine, and familial and hierarchical roles, all of which a white provider may not be familiar with.[82] Other type of communication problems are seen in LGBT health care with the spoken heterosexist (conscious or unconscious) attitude on LGBT patients, lack of understanding on issues like having no sex with men (lesbians, gynecologic examinations) and other issues.[83]

Provider discrimination

Provider discrimination occurs when health care providers either unconsciously or consciously treat certain racial and ethnic patients differently from other patients. This may be due to stereotypes that providers may have towards ethnic/racial groups. Doctors are more likely to ascribe negative racial stereotypes to their minority patients.[84] This may occur regardless of consideration for education, income, and personality characteristics. Two types of stereotypes may be involved, automatic stereotypes or goal modified stereotypes. Automated stereotyping is when stereotypes are automatically activated and influence judgments/behaviors outside of consciousness.[85] Goal modified stereotype is a more conscious process, done when specific needs of clinician arise (time constraints, filling in gaps in information needed) to make a complex decisions.[85] Physicians are unaware of their implicit biases.[86] Some research suggests that ethnic minorities are less likely than whites to receive a kidney transplant once on dialysis or to receive pain medication for bone fractures. Critics question this research and say further studies are needed to determine how doctors and patients make their treatment decisions. Others argue that certain diseases cluster by ethnicity and that clinical decision making does not always reflect these differences.[87]

Lack of preventive care

According to the 2009 National Healthcare Disparities Report, uninsured Americans are less likely to receive preventive services in health care.[88] For example, minorities are not regularly screened for colon cancer and the death rate for colon cancer has increased among African Americans and Hispanic populations. Furthermore, limited English proficient patients are also less likely to receive preventive health services such as mammograms.[89] Studies have shown that use of professional interpreters have significantly reduced disparities in the rates of fecal occult testing, flu immunizations and pap smears.[90] In the UK, Public Health England, a universal service free at the point of use, which forms part of the NHS, offers regular screening to any member of the population considered to be in an at-risk group (such as individuals over 45) for major disease (such as colon cancer, or diabetic-retinopathy).[91][92]

Plans for achieving health equity

There are a multitude of strategies for achieving health equity and reducing disparities outlined in scholarly texts, some examples include:

Health inequalities

Health inequality is the term used in a number of countries to refer to those instances whereby the health of two demographic groups (not necessarily ethnic or racial groups) differs despite comparative access to health care services. Such examples include higher rates of morbidity and mortality for those in lower occupational classes than those in higher occupational classes, and the increased likelihood of those from ethnic minorities being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. In Canada, the issue was brought to public attention by the LaLonde report.

In UK, the Black Report was produced in 1980 to highlight inequalities. On 11 February 2010, Sir Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at University College London, published the Fair Society, Healthy Lives report on the relationship between health and poverty. Marmot described his findings as illustrating a "social gradient in health": the life expectancy for the poorest is seven years shorter than for the most wealthy, and the poor are more likely to have a disability. In its report on this study, The Economist argued that the material causes of this contextual health inequality include unhealthful lifestyles - smoking remains more common, and obesity is increasing fastest, amongst the poor in Britain.[100]

Poor health and economic inequality

Poor health outcomes appear to be an effect of economic inequality across a population. Nations and regions with greater economic inequality show poorer outcomes in life expectancy,[101] mental health,[102] drug abuse,[103] obesity,[104] educational performance, teenage birthrates, and ill health due to violence. On an international level, there is a positive correlation between developed countries with high economic equality and longevity. This is unrelated to average income per capita in wealthy nations.[105] Economic gain only impacts life expectancy to a great degree in countries in which the mean per capita annual income is less than approximately $25,000. The United States shows exceptionally low health outcomes for a developed country, despite having the highest national healthcare expenditure in the world. The US ranks 31st in life expectancy. Americans have a lower life expectancy than their European counterparts, even when factors such as race, income, diet, smoking, and education are controlled for.[106]

Relative inequality negatively affects health on an international, national, and institutional levels. The patterns seen internationally hold true between more and less economically equal states in the United States. The patterns seen internationally hold true between more and less economically equal states in the United States, that is, more equal states show more desirable health outcomes. Importantly, inequality can have a negative health impact on members of lower echelons of institutions. The Whitehall I and II studies looked at the rates of cardiovascular disease and other health risks in British civil servants and found that, even when lifestyle factors were controlled for, members of lower status in the institution showed increased mortality and morbidity on a sliding downward scale from their higher status counterparts. The negative aspects of inequality are spread across the population. For example, when comparing the United States (a more unequal nation) to England (a less unequal nation), the US shows higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, cancer, lung disease, and heart disease across all income levels.[107] This is also true of the difference between mortality across all occupational classes in highly equal Sweden as compared to less-equal England.[108]

See also


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  103. Figure 5.3.Adapted from Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press
  104. Figure 7.1. Adapted from Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press
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