What is Health Equity?

CHWs are regarded as the health equity workforce by many leaders in healthcare and public health. But what exactly is health equity?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in one of their flagship papers entitled “What is Health Equity? And What Difference Does a Definition Make?” defines health equity in the following way:

“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”

Health equity can be achieved through the removal of health inequities, which is similar but different from health disparities. Health disparities are when we see a difference in health outcomes between groups of individuals because of some identifier (race, gender, child parity, etc.). Health inequities point to this same difference, but identifies the root cause as a systematic oppression due to society’s current structure. Examples of this systematic oppression may be sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. These differences in health outcomes, while seen at a person-level, are being created by society’s treatment of groups of people due to a specific identifier. In order to create health equity in our communities, we must remove these obstacles to health at the individual, environmental, social, and political levels.

What is the Difference between Health Equity and Health Equality? 

There is a reason we choose to use the word equity instead of equality when talking about progressing health outcomes. This is because as individuals, we are all starting off with unique needs and barriers to health. As you can see from the graphic created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, when we focus on health equality, we focus on giving access to the same type of care to every person (in the visual, the same type of bike). While this is equal, we notice that only one individual can actually ride the bike. This is the same for health equality; when we give individuals access to the same type and level of care, people may not have their needs met because we all have different needs. When we look at health inequalities, we can see that some groups may even experience systematic oppression that makes their health needs greater. When we approach equity, we give all individuals the bikes they need, rather than the same bike for everyone. For health equity, this means making sure every individual gets the type of care they need, even if this is different than the care given to others.