All it takes is a few scrolls through LinkedIn and Twitter, and it’s clear that health disparities and the need for greater health equity are being talked about by more and more organizations across the healthcare industry. There is consensus that health equity is important and that health systems will need to actively and sustainably prioritize the issue for improvements to be made. However, there is less agreement on what actionable steps need to be taken to address health disparities in a meaningful and sustainable way. Likely because there are many different opinions on which interventions, programs, and changes need to be implemented to address the systemic issues that created the place we are today. Getting to a place where there is less talk about solutions and more action taken by organizations such as health systems and health plans will require more than just agreement that the issue is important, but also agreement on the desired future state of what achieving health equity looks like in the US.
What is health equity?
There are a lot of definitions for health equity and even some historical definitions that may not seem applicable today. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published a report in 2021 that offered the following definition: “Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education, and housing, safe environments, and health care.” Getting consensus on the definition of health equity is important because it ensures that all groups are talking about the same desired end state when considering actions that can get us to that point. A common understanding of where we want to be as a healthcare ecosystem removes distractions and can help align organizations to work more efficiently toward that end state.
What are health disparities?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health disparities as preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. Health disparities can result from factors that include poverty, inadequate access to healthcare services, educational inequalities, and behavioral factors. For example, individuals with less education are more likely to experience a number of health risks, such as obesity, substance abuse, and intentional and unintentional injury, compared with individuals with more education. Health disparities and the underlying causes of those disparities must be addressed to increase health equity and reduce differences in care received by or accessible to underserved populations.
How can health systems address the issue of health equity?
Achieving complete and sustainable health equity in the US will require a lot of time, effort, and change. It will not happen overnight or even in a few years, but there are some things that health systems can do now to move the needle in the right direction. One of the first important steps is for a health system to identify representation gaps within its patient base and leading social determinants of health to focus efforts on ways to close those gaps. Another step that health systems can implement is to identify interventions and programs that are sustainable financially and accessible to those underserved and underrepresented populations. For example, Helix’s health system partners are all striving to meet their own health equity goals, and one of the ways that they have chosen to help tackle the issue is through population genomics. A population genomics program is a community health research program that offers anyone within a major health system’s community access to no-cost genetic screening for key conditions (like certain cancers and heart disease), to increase precise, preventive care. As of now, there isn’t a set framework for the types of interventions and programs that will be successful in improving health equity, but there are components that those programs should encompass. Ultimately, the programs that will have the most impact on health equity will not only benefit everyone’s well-being, but will also be systematically targeted to produce the greatest health benefit for socially disadvantaged groups, who are worse off both in health and opportunities to be as healthy as possible.
Join us for a webinar on “How to achieve health equity on a population scale” on November 2nd at 9 am PT / 12 pm ET. Experienced leaders from The Health Management Academy, Mount Sinai, and Polaris Genomics will come together to discuss strategies for health organizations to support more equitable community health.