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Health Equity: Why It Matters and How to Achieve It

4 min.

Addressing health inequities is essential in the United States, which ranks last on measures of health equity compared to other industrialized nations.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Updated: July 12, 2023


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Table of Contents

According to the World Health Organization, health inequities are systematic disparities in the health status of different population groups. Despite significant progress made toward increasing health equity over the last decade, the United States still ranks last on measures of health equity compared to other industrialized nations.

There’s ample evidence that social factors, including income level, gender, geographic location, and ethnicity, play an important role in an individual’s health outcomes—in all countries, and especially the United States. Generally, the lower a person’s socioeconomic status, the higher their risk of poor health outcomes.

Although many healthcare organizations have initiated efforts to improve health equity, we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, there are evidence-based approaches, structures, and processes to recognize health inequities, address the social determinants of health, and dismantle processes that perpetuate socioeconomic-based disparities

What are health disparities?

Health disparities are preventable differences in health outcomes that are experienced by marginalized populations, such as people of color, people with disabilities, and the elderly, more so than more privileged populations. These health outcomes include the burden of disease, unintentional injury, disability, or mental health issues. Health disparities are not the result of individual choice and are often related to socioeconomic status, structural racism, and discrimination toward minority groups.

Although the healthcare system plays a major role in health inequity, it’s not the only institution to blame. Disparities are directly related to the historical and current unfair distribution of social, political, economic, and environmental resources, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Why does health inequity matter in mental health treatment?

Health inequities result in differences in life expectancy, quality of life, rates of disease, disability, death, and access to health treatment—including mental health services. According to the American Psychiatric Association, racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often experience poor mental health outcomes due to several factors, including the inaccessibility of mental health services, the cultural stigma surrounding mental health, and a lack of awareness about mental health conditions.

Although many racial and ethnic minority groups experience mental health issues to the same degree as White people, they’re less likely to seek treatment, according to the National Institutes of Health. What’s more, social inequality, discrimination, prejudice, and the COVID-19 pandemic have had profound impacts on minority health, especially in communities of color. During the height of the pandemic, job loss, high mortality rates, and social distancing took a disproportionate toll on minority groups’ mental health, further exacerbating mental health disparities in vulnerable populations.

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Healthcare disparities among minority youth are especially concerning. In a 2021 survey conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health’s Centers for American Indian & Alaska Native Health, over half of American Indian and Alaska Native respondents said that youth mental health services and substance abuse programs were critical needs, with 73 percent reporting that access to health insurance was also a critical need.

In the pursuit of health equity, healthcare facilities must practice cultural competency to provide quality care. Minority groups need clinicians who understand their lives, address population-specific healthcare needs, and offer inclusive services. By directly addressing marginalized peoples’ needs, healthcare providers can build trusting relationships with them and encourage them to utilize mental health services.

How can we achieve health equity?

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According to the U.S. CDC, health equity is achieved when every person can “attain his or her full health potential,” and no one is disadvantaged due to their social position or other socially determined circumstances.

Ultimately, achieving health equity requires eliminating disparities and achieving optimal health for everyone. The Health Equity Must Be a Strategic Priority article describes how health systems can work toward health equity:

  • Make health equity a priority
    Federal government agencies should identify inequities and build health equity into all decisions.
  • Develop structures that support equity
    Most importantly, we must provide opportunities for minority populations that have been marginalized in the past.
  • Confront structural racism within the healthcare system
    Health disparities are rooted in inequities in the opportunities and resources needed to maintain optimal health, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Health systems must dismantle the norms that enable race-based advantages for privileged communities.
  • Partner with community organizations
    Local health organizations must promote health screenings, low-income healthcare services, and access to mental healthcare.

The numbers speak for themselves: U.S. healthcare is not equitable. To promote better health outcomes, health systems must act strategically to provide equal opportunities and resources for everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion, income level, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

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