What Are Health Disparities?

Definition, Examples, Significance

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The term health disparities refers to the differences in health and health care access among members of different populations. These gaps or inequities can connect to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and other categories. Health disparities are not biological, but instead emerge from social, economic, political, and other external causes.

Medical professionals, public health workers, and health researchers study health disparities in order to identify their roots and find ways to prevent them. By reducing health disparities, people and groups can enjoy more equal health outcomes. 

Key Takeaways: Health Disparities

  • Health disparities are gaps in health outcomes or health access among different populations.
  • Health disparities stem from social, historical, and economic causes.
  • In the U.S., HealthyPeople.gov is a leading initiative designed to raise awareness about health disparities and ultimately improve health outcomes.

Types of Health Disparities

The term health care disparities refers to differences in the ability to access health care, utilize health care, or receive quality and culturally competent care. The term health disparities refers to differences in actual health outcomes.

Disparities can affect people based on factors like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, disability, and more. Disparities can also occur due to intersecting categories, such as race combined with gender. In the U.S., the Office of Minority Health is an important source of research and information on racial and ethnic health disparities. Since 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published and updated multiple reports about health disparities and ways to reduce their impact. 

Health disparities can refer to differences in life expectancy, rates of chronic conditions, prevalence of mental illness or disability, access to medical and dental care, and many other possible types of inequality with respect to health.

Key Questions

The following are examples of questions considered by researchers who study health disparities.

  • Are different racial or ethnic groups more likely to experience preventable chronic health conditions?
  • Do members of a particular group have more or less access to health care services?
  • What differences in life expectancy are documented among different racial or ethnic communities?
  • How does gender affect access to effective treatments for certain health conditions?
  • Do people with a disability receive the same level of care as their non-disabled peers?
  • Are people from different patient populations more likely to experience mental health struggles, such as anxiety or depression?

Causes of Health Disparities

Health disparities result from complex and intersecting factors. These might include a lack of insurance, an inability to pay for care, a shortage of qualified local health practitioners, language barriers, cultural bias among practitioners, and a variety of other social, cultural, and environmental factors.

Health Disparities in the Contemporary U.S.

Every decade, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion launches a new Healthy People campaign designed to improve the health of all Americans. Reducing health disparities across all groups remains a top public health priority.

There are many examples of health disparities in the contemporary U.S. For instance:

  • According to the CDC, non-Hispanic Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives have poorer oral health than other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Black women are over 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than their white peers.
  • People living in rural areas have higher rates of death from unintentional injuries.
  • Adults with disabilities are less likely to receive needed medical care because of costs involved.

Who Works on Health Disparities?

Health disparities are an important topic for research and innovation. Public health researchers, medical anthropologists, and policy analysts make significant contributions to understanding the factors that generate health disparities. On the ground, health care providers can play an active role in raising awareness about disparities both among experts and in communities. Relevant institutions and organizations include the CDC, National Institutes of Health, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the Office of Minority Health, and HealthyPeople.gov.  

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