1.11: Health Disparities
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Although the term disparities is often interpreted to mean racial or ethnic disparities, many dimensions of disparity exist in the United States, particularly in health. If a health outcome is seen to a greater or lesser extent between populations, there is disparity. Race or ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, age, disability, socioeconomic status, and geographic location all contribute to an individual’s ability to achieve good health. It is important to recognize the impact that social determinants have on health outcomes of specific populations. Healthy People strives to improve the health of all groups.
To better understand the context of disparities, it is important to understand more about the U.S. population. In 2008, the U.S. population was estimated at 304 million people.
- In 2008, approximately 33%, or more than 100 million people, identified themselves as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority population.
- In 2008, 51%, or 154 million people, were women.
- In 2008, approximately 12%, or 36 million people not living in nursing homes or other residential care facilities, had a disability.
- In 2008, an estimated 70.5 million people lived in rural areas (23% of the population), while roughly 233.5 million people lived in urban areas (77%).
- In 2002, an estimated 4% of the U.S. population ages 18 to 44 identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
During the past 2 decades, one of Healthy People’s overarching goals has focused on disparities. In Healthy People 2000, it was to reduce health disparities among Americans. In Healthy People 2010, it was to eliminate, not just reduce, health disparities. In Healthy People 2020, that goal expanded even further: to achieve health equity, eliminate disparities, and improve the health of all groups.
Healthy People 2020 defines health equity as the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing societal efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices, and the elimination of health and health care disparities.”
Healthy People 2020 defines a health disparity as “a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health based on their racial or ethnic group; religion; socioeconomic status; gender; age; mental health; cognitive, sensory, or physical disability; sexual orientation or gender identity; geographic location; or other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”
Over the years, efforts to eliminate disparities and achieve health equity have focused primarily on diseases or illnesses and on health care services. However, the absence of disease does not automatically equate to good health. Powerful, complex relationships exist between health and biology, genetics, and individual behavior, and between health and health services, socioeconomic status, the physical environment, discrimination, racism, literacy levels, and legislative policies. These factors, which influence an individual or population’s health, are known as determinants of health.
For all Americans, other influences on health include the availability of and access to:
- High-quality education
- Nutritious food
- Decent and safe housing
- Affordable, reliable public transportation
- Culturally sensitive health care providers
- Health insurance
- Clean water and non-polluted air
Throughout the next decade, Healthy People 2020 will assess health disparities in the U.S. population by tracking rates of illness, death, chronic conditions, behaviors, and other types of outcomes in relation to demographic factors including:
- Race and ethnicity
- Sexual identity and orientation
- Disability status or special health care needs
- Geographic location (rural and urban)