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Health Equity: Why It Matters and How to Achieve It

Health Equity is the focus on addressing health disparities and the social determinants of health. Addressing health inequities is essential in today's society.

Health disparities

According to the World Health Organization, health inequities are systematic differences 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, there are wide-ranging disparities in the health status of different groups. Generally, the lower a person's socioeconomic status, the higher their risk of poor health outcomes.

Although many health care 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 advantages

What are health disparities?

Health disparities

Health disparities are preventable differences in health outcomes that are experienced by disadvantaged 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 . Disparities are the result of much more than individual choice, and they're often related to socioeconomic status, structural racism, and discrimination toward minority groups.

Although the health care 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 are reflected 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/ethnic minority groups experience a similar prevalence of mental illness to 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. Job loss, high mortality rates, and social distancing can take a significant toll on mental health, further exacerbating mental health disparities in vulnerable populations without adequate coping strategies.

Health care 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, health care facilities must practice cultural competence to provide quality care. Minority groups need clinicians who understand their lives, address population-specific health care needs, and offer inclusive services. By addressing minority and ethnic disparities, health care providers can build trusting relationships with individuals, encouraging them to utilize mental health services.

How can we achieve health equity?

health equity

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 health care system. 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 advantage.
  • Partner with community organizations. Local health organizations must promote health screenings, low-income health care services, and access to mental health care.

The numbers speak for themselves: U.S. health care 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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