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Health Equity 101: Definitions, Examples, Learning Opportunities

Health equity exists when everyone reaches their full potential for health and well-being. Complete health equality is impossible because everyone’s body and potential are different, but unfair, avoidable, and treatable differences between groups of people must be eliminated before equity exists. This isn’t an easy task, but health is a human right. If countries wish to improve their well-being and health, health equity is essential. In this article, we’ll explore the definitions of health equity, give examples of equity in action, and identify where you can learn more about this important human rights area.

Health equity eliminates avoidable health differences between groups by increasing healthcare access, improving services, and removing systemic barriers related to race, gender, class, and more.

What is health equity?

Many documents define health equity, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of the World Health Organization. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists the foundational values of the United Nations, enshrines the right to health in Article 25. It reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…”

The Constitution of the WHO, which came into force the same year as the UDHR in 1948, reaffirms the right to health. There, health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of the disease or infirmity.” The text goes on to read, “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The UDHR and WHO provide essential frameworks for health and human rights around the world, but they are not legally binding. Their definitions of health equity are just that: definitions. Health equity is only enforceable through legally-binding treaties, laws, or policies.

What are governments doing to improve health equity?

Health equity is a multifaceted challenge, but there are many ways to improve healthcare access and health outcomes. We can get a better idea of what health equity looks like by seeing what governments are doing:

The Medical Aid Program (South Korea)

In 1979, South Korea established the Medical Aid Program, which created a safety net for people who couldn’t afford to pay their medical bills. The program has changed over the years. In 2004, it expanded to cover patients with rare, chronic diseases and children under 18. Central and local governments fund the program. Anticipating an aging population who would need caregiving for illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the government also established a Long-term Care Insurance program in 2008.

The Affordable Care Act (United States)

Enacted in 2010, the Affordable Care Act sought to reform the American healthcare system and decrease health disparities. It expanded health insurance coverage, prohibited exclusion based on preexisting conditions, let people stay on their parent’s health insurance plans until age 26, and required most private health insurance plans to cover women’s preventative healthcare. According to a 2020 article in Health Affairs, disparities in coverage decreased thanks to the ACA. Coverage increased the most for non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people.

Close the Gap Campaign (Australia)

In 2007, the Council of Australian Governments set targets to track and assess the health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Their goal is to reach health equity within a generation. The campaign publishes a report every year reaffirming a strengths-based framework and culturally safe, place-based, and appropriate solutions. Campaign members include the Australian Medical Association, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, and the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia.

NHS Long-Term Plan (United Kingdom)

The NHS Long Term Plan began in 2018 and will direct the National Health Service’s approach until 2028. Its goal is to tackle health inequalities through a focus on five priority areas, such as preventing digital exclusion, enhancing preventative programs, and strengthening leadership and accountability. With this plan, the NHS hopes to improve equitable access and outcomes.

Primary Health Care Strategy (New Zealand)

In 2001, the New Zealand government established a healthcare strategy that emphasized primary healthcare as a solution to health inequities. The strategy has five priorities, including reducing financial barriers for those with the greatest health need, encouraging multidisciplinary approaches to services, and supporting the development of services by Māori and Pacific providers.

What can healthcare organizations do to reduce health inequities?

Governments play a vital role in improving health equity, but healthcare organizations and medical professionals are important, too. Here are some examples of what they can do:

Conduct research

Before addressing disparities, healthcare organizations need to know where the disparities are. With good research methods, they can identify disparities in access, healthcare quality, and health outcomes. Good information can help healthcare organizations develop better solutions moving forward.

Address the social determinants of health

Social determinants of health are non-medical factors that impact health outcomes, such as income, education, job security, working life conditions, food insecurity, and more. Healthcare organizations can work with community organizations on services like housing assistance, food programs, employment services, and other aid. By addressing the social determinants, healthcare organizations can play a vital role in improving health equity.

Diversify the medical field

Diverse workplaces are more productive and successful, and the medical field is no exception. Studies continue to confirm this. In one example, the presence of more Black primary care physicians led to better survival-related outcomes for Black people who lived in the area, even if they didn’t see a Black doctor. The mortality rate disparities between Black and white people were reduced.

Engage the community more

Many people feel misunderstood and disconnected from their healthcare providers. A lack of trust can also discourage people from seeking care even when it could save their lives. Healthcare organizations must build trust with the communities they serve, tailor their services to the community’s needs, and seek community participation in programs and decision-making.

Provide culturally competent care

Culturally-competent healthcare systems meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of all their patients. This is especially important as those most in need of improved healthcare and better health outcomes often come from racial and ethnic minorities. When healthcare organizations aren’t culturally competent, patients are more likely to feel unhappy with their care and less likely to return. Diversifying the workplace, having interpreter services on hand, working with community health workers, and understanding cultural values are important steps.

Which health equity efforts do you believe are the most neglected?

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Where can you find learning opportunities about health equity?

Online courses are a great way to learn more about health equity. Here are eight examples:

Advancing Health Equity: A Guide To Reducing Bias in Healthcare (University of Michigan)
Length: 10 hours
Level: Intermediate

This course challenges your awareness, values, and actions on unconscious and implicit bias. You’ll explore topics like community orientation, organizational awareness, professionalism, and accountability, change leadership, and strategic orientation. By the course’s end, you’ll be able to consider multiple perspectives, analyze your bias, and act.

Engaging in Strategic Management in Healthcare Organizations (Northeastern University)

Length: 14 hours
Level: Beginner

This is Part 2 of the Strategic Management for Healthcare Organizations course. It covers the analytical frameworks needed for strategic decision-making and draws on different disciplines, like management and economics. You’ll conduct an external evaluation that looks at market, environment, customer, and competitor analyses. By the course’s end, you’ll have a solid understanding of how organizations make strategic decisions and how to apply your skills.

Human Health Risks, Health Equity, and Environmental Justice (University of Michigan)

Length: 17 hours
Level: Beginner

The last course in the “Impacts of the Environment on Global Public Health” specialization covers environmental justice and risk assessment and management. You’ll learn the steps in risk assessment and how it can address environmental justice issues.

Foundations of Health Equity Research (John Hopkins University)

Length: 14 hours
Level: Beginner

In this course, you’ll cover the core principles of health equity research. Topics include defining health equity, cultural competence, engaging community and policy stakeholders, and disseminating research findings.

Application of Health Equity Research Methods for Practice and Policy (John Hopkins University)

Length: 14 hours
Level: Intermediate

This course is designed for students with previous experience in the area or who have completed the introduction to health equity research course. You’ll learn the innovative methods, practical tools, and skills necessary to perform rigorous health equity research. Topics include behavioral intervention development, adapting interventions for socially at-risk populations, and research methods in healthcare services.

Achieving Health Equity in Healthcare (University of Michigan)

Length: 10 hours
Level: Intermediate

This is the last course in the “Addressing Racial Health Equity in Healthcare” specialization. Topics covered include the legal, policy, and regulatory approaches to interventions, the history and role of community health centers, and the workforce initiatives and reparations designed to address racial and ethnic healthcare disparities.

AI and Big Data in Global Health Improvement (Taipei Medical University)

Length: 4 weeks (2 hours per week)
Level: Beginner

This course focuses on future global healthcare developments. By the course’s end, you’ll be ready to describe how big data can improve healthcare quality in global pandemics, how AI and big data play a role in global health improvement, and how massive observational health data and AI techniques can improve healthcare quality.

Structural Racism: Causes of Health Inequities in the U.S. (University of Michigan)

Length: 17 hours
Level: Beginner

This course helps students learn why race was created, how it was used to advance white people’s interests, and how state violence reinforces racial inequities. By the end, you’ll be ready to describe the impact of structural racism on individuals, identify policies and events that shape current racial health inequities, and apply public writing strategies to fight racial health inequities.

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Human Rights Careers

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