Health inequity refers to avoidable differences in health between different groups of people. Examples of health inequity include lower life expectancy, high rates of mental ill-health, and difficulty getting healthcare.

These widespread differences are the result of systems that negatively affect people’s living conditions, access to healthcare, and overall health status.

Health inequity affects people from disadvantaged or historically oppressed groups most severely. However, it has a negative impact on everyone.

This article will look at health inequity in more detail, explaining how it differs from health inequality and its impact.

It will also provide specific examples of how health inequity affects people and describe what health equity could look like.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health inequity as “systematic differences in the health status of different population groups.”

This means that certain groups experience worse health and increased difficulty accessing healthcare as a result of the systems that influence their lives.

For example, economic and political systems can influence poverty. People born in areas where poverty is high may have reduced access to safe housing, clean water, healthy food, education, and medical care — all of which impact health.

This creates an avoidable and unfair divide between different groups. Changes in government policy are necessary to overcome this.

Health inequity occurs on a local, national, and global scale, and it affects all countries.

Although they sound similar, the terms health inequity and health inequality are different.

Inequity refers to unfair and avoidable inequalities that are not inevitable or natural but the product of human behavior. Inequality, on the other hand, simply refers to the uneven distribution of resources.

For example, health differences based on age are usually the result of health inequality. It is normal for the health of young people to be better than the health of older adults overall. As a result, this is not typically an example of health inequity.

Disparity has a slightly different meaning to both of these terms. A disparity simply means a difference. It does not specifically refer to differences that are the result of unfairness or injustice.

For instance, differences in infant mortality among social, racial, or ethnic groups within the same country are often the result of inequity rather than disparity. This is because if a country can provide higher quality maternal care to one group, there is typically no medical reason that it should not provide it for another.

The following sections will look at some specific examples of how health inequity affects people.

Lower life expectancy

Average life expectancy can vary dramatically depending on the region a person is born in. Socioeconomic background has a huge influence on this.

For example, children born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, have a life expectancy of 50 years, while children born in Japan have a life expectancy of 84 years. This is the result of dramatic differences in living conditions, income, and healthcare services.

This problem is not exclusive to lower income countries. In Glasgow, United Kingdom, the life expectancy for men can vary by as much as 15.5 years, depending on the neighborhood they live in.

Higher rates of mental ill-health

Inequity can also lead to chronic stress, which affects both mental and physical health.

For example, the Youth Risk Behavior Study 2009–2019 found that young people in the United States who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual experience higher levels of bullying and sexual violence than heterosexual people. This has lead to an increase in rates of mental ill-health and suicide.

Mental health conditions and feelings of being unsafe can make it more difficult for people to attend school or work and seek help for their symptoms.

Learn more about the impact of heterosexism (homophobia) here.

Difficulty getting healthcare

Bias, prejudice, and discrimination can lead to delays in diagnosis and treatment. Certain groups may also have difficulty being believed or taken seriously by doctors.

Some studies have found that women wait longer on average for medical care when they visit the emergency department than men. Women also experience significant delays in the treatment of many conditions, including bleeding disorders and lupus. There is no medical reason for this.

A lack of awareness about the differences in heart attack symptoms between men and women also leads to higher rates of misdiagnosis, which can be fatal.

Preventable death

Health inequity causes preventable deaths. There are many examples of this, but one of the clearest examples is the difference between infant health and mortality among Black and white babies born in the U.S.

Black people are more likely than white people to have babies with a low birth weight. They are also more likely to experience the loss of a baby.

This is not linked to any biological differences between races, and it is true regardless of socioeconomic background. This demonstrates that the higher rate of infant mortality is not natural or inevitable.

Learn more about racism in healthcare in the U.S. here.

Health inequity is due to human-made systems and structures that privilege certain groups and underserve or actively oppress others. This occurs through the unequal distribution of power and resources.

For example, these structures include:

  • racism, which distributes more power and resources to one race over another, typically meaning that historically marginalized racial or ethnic groups — such as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander people — receive fewer resources
  • sexism, which privileges one gender over another, meaning that in most cases, men have more privileges than women and other gender identities
  • classism, which gives unfair advantage to those with wealth and social status and disadvantages those with less
  • xenophobia, which gives nonimmigrants more power and rights than immigrants
  • heterosexism, which privileges heterosexuality over other sexual orientations
  • ableism, which values able-bodied people and devalues people with mental or physical disabilities

These systems are complex and interdependent, meaning that they all affect one another. Many people are affected by more than one of these systems.

People perpetuate these systems at every level, including at an:

  • institutional level, which includes how organizations and governments set their laws, policies, and practices
  • interpersonal level, which includes how people behave toward each other
  • internal level, which includes how people view themselves

The result of this is environmental, social, and economic differences that impact people’s health, leading to health inequity.

Health inequity negatively impacts everyone. It leads to worsened outcomes not just for the people it directly affects, but also for those with more power and resources.

For example, health inequity:

  • makes it more difficult to contain and treat infectious diseases
  • increases levels of crime and violence across communities
  • fuels alcohol and substance misuse
  • increases stress and anxiety by damaging social cohesion
  • decreases productivity and employment, and, therefore, tax revenue
  • pushes 100 million people into poverty each year and prevents at least half of the world’s population from getting the healthcare they need
  • costs billions of U.S. dollars per year and raises the cost of healthcare for everyone

For people who health inequity directly affects, the impact is not just limited to their lifetime. Health inequity can affect their children and grandchildren, both psychologically and physically.

Health equity is the opposite of health inequity. It describes a system that supports a high standard of health and healthcare for all people.

To achieve this, people would need to eliminate sources of health inequity and provide people with individualized care based on their needs. This means giving more power and resources to groups that have less rather than treating everyone the same.

In the healthcare system, this could involve:

  • financial risk protection for people who need to pay for healthcare
  • affordable prices for medications and vaccines
  • flexible appointment times for people who work long or unusual hours
  • mobile health services for those in remote areas and people who cannot travel
  • easy access to translators, care workers, and others who can help people understand and access medical care
  • education for healthcare professionals on how inequity affects the care they provide to their patients
  • financial and social support for trainee medical staff who come from diverse backgrounds

Achieving health equity also involves societal change. This could involve:

These are just a few examples. How countries tackle health inequity will be unique to the needs of the people who live there.

Learn more about the social determinants of health here.

Health inequities are avoidable differences in the health status of different social groups. They are not the product of biological or inevitable disparities but of human-made systems and structures.

Health inequity harms everyone, regardless of background or identity. However, it most severely impacts historically marginalized groups.