Not everyone in the United States has the same access to quality healthcare, community support, a healthy environment, and social stability. Those differences can cause health and healthcare disparities.
What are health disparities? Simply put, disparities are differences in health outcomes for some groups of people that create barriers to their optimal health. Healthy People 2020, a resource website managed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, defines a health disparity as “a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage.”
What Causes Health Disparities?
There are many factors that can create barriers to care and good health. Socioeconomic status and race are two that are well-documented, but there are many others that might not be as obvious, such as age, language, mental health, substance use disorder and other mental and physical disabilities.
For example, if an individual doesn’t speak fluent English and there are no interpreters at their doctor’s office or hospital, it makes it much more difficult for that person to communicate symptoms, circumstances, and concerns. Rural communities are more likely to have shortages of medical professionals, which also creates barriers to access, since the closest care might be far away. An individual with a disability might experience barriers to accessing adequate care, such as transportation to the doctor’s office.
Some barriers can be temporary, but if left in place, they can also become cyclical. If a parent becomes too sick to work, they can lose their job and income, causing them experience significant financial hardships. If that parent doesn’t have health insurance and can’t afford quality healthcare, they become sicker, making it more difficult to find a new job and care for their children. It’s a cycle that continues and makes overcoming barriers to health even more difficult. Unfortunately, there are many examples like these, and they can all lead to health disparities and inequities.
What are Examples of Health Disparities?
There are many examples of health disparities in the U.S. Here are just a few:
Infant mortality: Babies born to Black women die at a rate that is more than double that of babies born to White women.
Behavioral health: LGBTQIA+ individuals have a higher risk of some behavioral health conditions; they may be up to 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety and substance misuse.
Obesity: Hispanic/Latino children ages 6-11 have a prevalence of obesity that is twice the prevalence for White children of the same age, while Hispanic/Latino kids between 2-5 years old have a prevalence rate that is four times higher than their White peers.
Access to care: Residents of rural counties in Appalachia have 26% fewer primary care doctors per 100,000 people, and residents of Appalachia overall have 36% fewer behavioral health providers. The region also has higher rates of mortality due to heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, injury, stroke, diabetes and suicide.
COVID-19: According to the CDC’s data, hospitalization for COVID-19 among Black and Hispanic/Latino people is nearly 2.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic White people.
What Are the Impacts of Health Disparities?
We believe that everyone has a right to be as healthy as possible, and health disparities undermine that right. Disparities mean that more people get sick, even though sickness could be avoided. disparities also take an immense toll on society. According to a 2018 study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Altarum, health disparities cost the U.S. $42 billion in lowered productivity and $93 billion in excess medical costs each year.
We’re working to reduce health disparities in four key areas: access to healthcare and services, care delivery and experience, health-related social needs, and community well-being. And we aim to be data-driven each step of the way. For example, we are developing a measurement tool that will help us find the most promising opportunities to improve health more holistically. The tool looks at social, behavioral, and physical drivers of health to better understand what people need most to support their health. We know that one way to start eliminating health disparities is to change the healthcare system from within, working to ensure that all people — regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and geographic or financial access — can be as healthy as possible.