What Is Health Equity?

Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential.
Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light inequities in housing, justice, job opportunities and finance, and reopened a discussion on the disparities that exist across different communities. Health equity is especially relevant because its implications include economic and health care costs, and quality and duration of life. More importantly, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

Defining Health Equity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.”

The CDC strongly believes that to achieve health equity it’s imperative to eliminate or minimize the health disparities that exist to create optimal health opportunities for all Americans. As part of their strategy to address health disparities across the United States, it focuses on the social determinants of health.

Social Determinants of Health

Poverty, unemployment, education, urban versus rural living, and race and ethnicity are all factors that can influence an individual’s health.  These are referred to as social determinants of health.

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), these are the five key areas that have the greatest impact on a person’s potential for health:

  • Economic Stability – People with steady employment are less likely to live in poverty and more likely to be healthy. In the United States, 1 in 10 people live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford things like healthy foods, health care and housing. 
  • Education Access and Quality – Higher-educated people are more likely to be healthier – and live longer. Without a strong education, safe, high-paying jobs are more difficult to attain and often lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes and depression.
  • Health Care Access and Quality – Many U.S. residents don’t get the health care services they need and 1 in 10 don’t have health insurance. This lack of insurance prevents people from receiving preventive care and treatment for chronic illnesses.
  • Neighborhood and Built Environment – The neighborhoods people live in can affect their health and well-being. Communities with high rates of violence and unsafe air or water quality often contribute to poor health.
  • Social and Community Context – Personal relationships with family, friends and community members can affect health and well-being.

COVID-19 and Health Equity

In an article published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to achieve a healthier society, we need to “remove the obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination and their consequences.” Unfortunately, COVID-19 has highlighted how these obstacles continue to affect people of color and/or lower incomes at a much higher rate than other groups.

According to a recent study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), Black and Hispanic people continue to experience disproportional rates of illness and death due to COVID-19.”In fact, the analysis showed that AIAN, Black, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (NHOPI), and Hispanic people “had over three times premature excess deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. in 2020 than the rate among white or Asian people.”  

The higher rate of exposure and death from the illness can be traced to the social determinants such as living and working conditions, and transportation situations faced by historically under-resourced communities. The existing inequities in access to health care is reflected in higher rates of underlying health conditions and roadblocks to testing and treatment for COVID-19. It’s clear that breaking down the barriers of poverty and discrimination that affect health equity across communities could improve the health, prevention and treatment options of a wider group of people.

Working Towards More Equitable Health

The San Diego Foundation continues to support outreach programs that aim to create more equitable opportunities in our communities. As part our Strategic Plan, we’re focused on equitable health outcomes as part of our commitment to advancing racial and social justice.

Understanding that education sets the foundation for learning, The San Diego Foundation is helping to increase access to quality, affordable early childhood education and developmental care and provides scholarships to college students.

We’re also helping to improve the racial wealth gap in San Diego by investing in generational wealth-building opportunities through the Black Community Investment Fund.

Learn more about our Strategic Plan.