Understanding Health Disparities is the Key to Reaching Health Equity

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An overview of health disparities across multiple populations with statistics to demonstrate disparities, as well as ideas for reaching health equity.

What Are Health Disparities?

The word “disparity” is defined as “a great difference.” Health disparities refer to the differences in health amongst various demographics, including specific racial groups, ethnicities, sexualities, and more. Some disparities encompass how different groups experience certain health problems in terms of severity, whether certain groups can access healthcare, and how many people within certain groups have complications or die due to a disease.1 These  disparities are often linked to socioeconomic and environmental disadvantages.

Examples of health disparities can be found in different groups based on:

  • Sex and gender
  • Income level
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Immigrant Status
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Level of education

Special Population and Health Disparities

Some organizations have made it their goal to raise awareness about health disparities and work towards health equity, or the “highest attainment of health for all people,” according to Healthy People 2020.2 To achieve health equity, we must understand the facts surrounding health inequity.

Recent data indicates people of color tend to fare much worse than their white counterparts regarding health. For people of color, infant mortality is higher, pregnancy-related death rates are higher, chronic illnesses are more prevalent, and overall physical and mental health is worse.3

Influences on Health Disparity

Demographic Factors

Several demographic factors influence health disparity. Race and ethnicity are major factors of health disparities. Black people have a life expectancy that is four years less than white people, and people of color face more health problems overall.4

Gender factors into health disparities as well—although women tend to live longer lives than men, women also tend to face more health problems throughout their lives. Gender bias in medicine can lead to health inequity regarding gender. Pharmaceutical studies have, in the past and present, used primarily men in trials for products that were eventually marketed to men and women, even though the side effects may not be as clear for women.5

Sexual identity and orientation factor into health disparities because people in the LGBQ+ community experience certain health problems at higher rates than the rest of the community. Some of these health challenges include mental illness, substance use, and healthcare disparities, including a lack of access to healthcare.6

Those who are disabled or have special health care needs may also face barriers to sufficient treatment, and those who live in rural areas may have less access to adequate treatment compared to people in urban settings.

Accessibility Factors

Individuals with access to high-quality education experience fewer health problems compared to those who do not have access to such education. Food can also play a part in health inequity—access to nutritious foods positively impacts health, whereas junk foods (which are often more accessible in poorer areas) negatively affect health.

The issue of safe housing and affordable, reliable transportation also plays into healthcare disparities. Low-income people report worse health status than higher-income people.7 The stress that accompanies unsafe housing and unreliable transportation likely contributes to health inequity in lower-income communities.

There are also disparities when it comes to health insurance, healthcare, and racial disparities amongst health professionals. Despite programs like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that make insurance more accessible, many people remain at risk of being uninsured, particularly people of color and low-income individuals.

Which Population Are Most at Risk for Health Disparities?

Health Disparities

Ultimately, the populations who are most at risk for health disparities are minority groups, particularly African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. African Americans are diagnosed with AIDS more often than any other demographic, and the mortality rates associated with AIDS are highest in African Americans.8

The rates of infant mortality and pregnancy-related deaths are highest in the African American population as well. Another disparity is homicide rates, and those are also highest amongst African American men, along with obesity, another health disparity that disproportionally affects the African American population.8 More health disparity examples in the African American population include:9

  • 30% more likely to die of heart disease compared to white counterparts
  • African American men twice as likely to die from stroke compared to white men
  • 44% of African American men and 48% of African American women have some form of cardiovascular disease

Native Americans demonstrate several health disparities due in part to racial inequity. Their overall mortality rates are 50% higher than the mortality rates of the white population. Additionally, research shows that white people experienced an overall decline in mortality rates in the last 20 years, while Native Americans have not experienced such a decline.10 Native Americans also experience significant mental illness, with suicide rates 50% higher than white people. This suicide rate is likely related to the poor treatment they have received and continue to receive as a result of racist colonization.

More likely to die of heart disease
African american men have CVD

Health Disparities in the Other Communities

The LGBTQ+ community, veterans, and disabled people face disparities at high rates. Some important facts to demonstrate the health inequity are as follows:

  • LGBTQ+ individuals face higher rates of violence compared to cisgender, heterosexual counterparts.
  • HIV and AIDS remain major health threats for gay and bisexual men.
  • Transgender women are extremely at risk for disparities. They have less success finding employment, leading to higher rates of poverty and unsafe housing and higher rates of sex work and homicide in the community.
  • Transgender people also face difficulties accessing compassionate, affordable healthcare, and often cannot afford gender-affirming surgeries.

Which Population Are Most at Risk for Addiction?

Many of the same populations who face health disparities as described above are also most at risk for addiction. Research shows that addiction is a disparity that affects Native Americans at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. The rate of illicit drug use among Native Americans is higher than any other race or ethnicity in the United States.11 Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also more likely to use drugs and alcohol as compared to the cisgender, heterosexual population.

African Americans struggle with addiction less than their white counterparts, but statistics show that incarceration increases drug use among all races. Due to systemic racism and other inequities, African Americans are incarcerated at disproportionate rates as compared to other groups, and thus addiction increases with incarceration.12

What Is Health Equity?

Health equity is defined by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as “everyone having 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.”13 Health equity would decrease racial disparities in health care and other disparities in health and create a world with safer and more healthy people.

Addiction Treatment for Special Populations

By being aware of the disparities that affect different communities, rehabilitation centers can more effectively treat patients. This awareness includes sensitivity training regarding different cultural and racial groups as well as implementing LGBTQ+ affirming care. Utilizing sensitivity training and increasing knowledge about healthcare disparities for healthcare professionals could also aid in reaching health equity.


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