Advancing Health Equity: What It Means and Why It Matters

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What is Health Equity?

The phrase ‘health equity’ has been in the news and is something that many public health and health care leaders are currently focused on.  ‘Health equity’ is used to describe different initiatives, programs, and job positions, as well as to explain why patients are answering demographic questions and filling out social needs screening forms when they go to their appointments.  But what exactly is health equity, and why does it matter? 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) defines health equity as the attainment of the highest level of health for all individuals, where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain health regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, level of ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, income or employment, language, culture, location, or other factors that affect health and well-being or access to healthcare. 

Why It Matters

Unfortunately, health equity has yet to be realized.  The distribution of wealth, power, and resources, and factors like bias and discrimination, shape the conditions in which individuals live, work, play, learn and age.  These conditions are called social determinants or social drivers of health, and for some, that means safe neighborhoods, with access to healthy foods, high quality education and jobs, whereas others may live in a food swamp (i.e. only have access to processed foods, with no grocery store nearby), with environmental hazards, or limited options for decent housing and transportation. 

In May 2023, the Boston Public Health Commission released a Health of Boston Report highlighting the health inequities that persist across the city.  Underrecognized communities like Roxbury and Dorchester experienced higher rates of premature mortality and a higher prevalence of chronic disease.  Based on census data, they found that there was a 23-year difference in life expectancy between Roxbury (68.8 years) and Back Bay (91.6 years).

Why is there such a drastic difference in life expectancy between these neighborhoods?

The difference is not coincidental but stems from systemic inequities rooted in chronic disinvestment by government and industries, and discriminatory zoning practices like redlining, among other issues.  Awareness of root causes is essential for understanding disparities in health outcomes, and what factors need to be addressed to advance health equity.  Despite being only about 2 miles from Back Bay, many Roxbury residents experience notable differences in the quality of housing, education, health care, food access, income, public safety and other social drivers of health.  

The premature mortality experienced in communities like Roxbury is a poignant reminder that, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”  Advancing health equity can literally be life-saving work.  It can sometimes feel overwhelming to try and bring about change but each step taken matters.  And individuals and organizations working together, with a commitment to persistence and perseverance, is essential.

Our Work to Support 

So much goes into advancing health equity: collecting and analyzing demographic data, addressing health-related social needs, listening to and learning from community members who have lived experience, building community partnerships, providing training and education, legislative advocacy and more. 

At Healthcentric Advisors, we understand the multifaceted nature of advancing health equity. That’s why we’re actively collaborating with partners in several New England states and supporting healthcare organizations in their efforts to collect and analyze data, identify and address patients’ social needs, and foster local connections. 

Some of our work includes:

  • Providing resource compendiums of helpful guides and training templates.
  • Encouraging organizations to use a health equity organizational assessment tool to evaluate their status and identify areas of opportunity and next steps.
  • Consulting on best and promising practices for meeting new health equity measures or requirements from regulatory agencies.
  • Educating providers about health equity fundamentals, health equity and trauma informed care, supporting patients living with a disability, and more.
  • And convening affinity groups, or groups of professionals linked by a common purpose, to facilitate peer-learning and sharing of successful programs, actionable ideas, and lessons learned.
Where To Go from Here

Advancing health equity requires collaboration and continuous effort.  Intentional actions can   make a difference.  Here are some steps to consider:

  • Educate yourself.  Take a course about cultural humility or implicit bias, listen to TED Talks or podcasts about health equity, or start a conversation with a friend or family member.
  • Actively listen to individuals with lived experience. 
  • Learn about what it means to be an ally: 5 Tips For Being An Ally (youtube.com)
At the organizational level
  • Engage leadership and identify a champion to lead efforts to advance health equity. 
  • Focus on data collection to learn more about who is being served and what their needs are and then stratify the data to identify health disparities.
  • Meet with community leaders and social services, faith organizations, and local public health departments.  Listen, learn, be transparent, and co-create initiatives. 
  • Provide ongoing training for everyone in the organization to build awareness about health disparities and structural inequities, allyship and cultural humility, among other topics.

Not sure where to start?  Or are you interested in having support or assistance in your efforts to advance health equity?  We would be happy to meet with you and explore further!  Reach out to us anytime.

Sources:

Health Equity – Office of Health Equity – CDC

https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/health-equity

About the Author

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Laura Vanderhill, LSW, MHA

Senior Quality Improvement Specialist, Healthcentric Advisors

Laura Vanderhill is a Senior Quality Improvement Specialist, as well as a licensed social worker, with 15 years of experience in community-based organizations serving older adults.  She taught graduate healthcare administration and nursing students about chronic disease, end-of-life care, and social determinants of health for older adults.  At Healthcentric Advisors, she works with providers and community partners to address health-related social needs, support care transitions, and improve the prevention and management of chronic disease, among other focus areas.

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