Background on Health Disparities and Health Equity


Until 2010, Federal agencies defined health disparities very generally as “differences in health among different population groups.” The term was originally coined not merely to describe “all possible health differences among all possible groups of people” but rather to refer specifically to the poorer health outcomes experienced by socially disadvantaged people. Thus, in 2010, Healthy People 2020 clarified the meaning of health disparity by defining it as

“. . . a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with economic, social, or environmental disad­vantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater social or economic obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, age, or mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”

Health equity is defined as

“the principle underlying a commit­ment to reduce—and, ultimately, eliminate—dispari­ties in health and in its determinants, including social determinants. Pursuing health equity means striving for the highest possible standard of health for all people and giving special attention to the needs of those at greatest risk of poor health, based on social conditions.”

These explicit definitions of health disparities and health equity ensure that allotted resources are used for intended purposes.

In addition, the definitions of health disparities and health equity emphasize health differences specifically with regard to economic/ social disadvantage for many reasons:

  • First, a large body of evidence associates “economic/social disadvantage with avoidable illness, disability, suffering, and premature death.”
  • Second, economic/social disadvantage can be mitigated by social policies such as new minimum wage laws and anti-discriminatory housing and employment practices.
  • Moreover, “health is needed for functioning in every sphere of life” and should therefore be fairly distributed.
  • International human rights principles call for everyone to have a fair chance at health, well-being, long life, and social and economic opportunity and declare health disparities as discriminatory and inequitable.

Health disparities and health equity are interrelated. Health disparities are the way in which we measure progress towards health equity or social justice in health. A reduction in health disparities means greater health equity, and achieving greater health equity requires that we selectively improve the health of the economically/socially disadvantaged without worsen­ing of the health of others.

Read the related article:  What are Health Disparities and Health Equity? We Need to Be Clear