Health Disparities vs. Health Inequities: What’s the Difference?

Doctor discussing health disparities with patient.

The healthcare industry has been faced with a myriad of challenges that have only been exacerbated by the events of the past few years. Providing effective quality care to patients across populations has been a continual struggle.

This struggle with providing quality patient care does not present equally across all groups of individuals, however, which is why discussions of health disparities and inequities are so important. If there is a difference in the availability of health resources for certain groups of people, which there is, a concerted effort must be made to alleviate this injustice.

Before we jump into health disparities vs health inequities, let’s start with some definitions.

What are Health and Health Care Disparities?

Health disparities is a term that refers to the fact that health outcomes in specific populations differ from the overall population. It is formally defined in Healthy People 2020 as, “…a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with economic, social, or environmental disadvantage.” 

Global health disparities, or disparities of any scale, should be seen as a sort of chain of events that are signified by these notable and marked differences: 

  • Environment
  • Access to, utilization of, and quality of care
  • Health status; and/or a particular health outcome that deserves scrutiny.

It is important to mention that not all differences in the health of different populations are results of health disparities. The instance of more ACL injuries in soccer players versus the rest of the population is a health difference, but not a disparity. Same with the fact that elderly individuals are in worse health than younger individuals; these are conditions of life  that do not arise from some sort of discrimination or social injustice.

A true example of a health disparity is the fact that American Indians are twice as likely as white individuals to have diabetes, according to the CDC. This is a disparity in health that is present due to a health inequity; here, it is race.

What is Health Inequity?

Health inequity is the idea that there is not a fair distribution of health determinants, outcomes, and resources within and between segments of the population, regardless of social standing. A key characteristic of health inequities is the fact that they are wholly avoidable, unnecessary, and unjust, an addition to the definition added by Margaret Whitehead.

Some health inequity examples in the US particularly include racial inequity, as seen with the statistic above regarding the rate of diabetes among American Indians. Another example is data that consistently shows that Black adults are more likely than white adults to report a negative health care experience. This is an inequity that results in a disparity.

Another of these health inequity examples in the US is the issue of race and diabetes management. Racial inequities are causing health disparities in Black and American Indian and Alaska Natives (AIAN) populations, with the rate of diabetes as high as 14.5% for American Indians and Alaskan Natives, 12.1% for non-Hispanic Black Americans, compared with a rate of 7.4% for non-Hispanic whites.

So what about health disparities vs health inequities? How do they stand pitted against each other?

What is the Difference Between Health Disparities and Inequities?

The definitions above for health disparities and inequities might sound strikingly similar, but the relationship between the two ideas clears up any confusion on what roles each plays within our society. Health inequities are responsible for many of the health disparities—which are markedly negative health outcomes—that affect minorities and underserved people.

Health disparities—such as increased rates of a certain condition, more negative healthcare experiences confined to a certain population, or, for a more specific example, lower rates of breast cancer survival among African American women—are often driven by social and economic inequities, such as racial discrimination, access to nutritious food, safe drinking water, and proper education.

So there it is: The difference between health disparities and inequities is that the latter causes the former. And this phenomenon is particularly evident within different parts of the diabetic population.

Health Disparities and Diabetes

Countless studies show that racial and ethnic minorities bear more of the weight of the diabetes epidemic than the non-Hispanic white population. Besides a higher rate of prevalence, they experience worse diabetes control and higher rates of diabetes complications.

One of these diabetes complications is an eye condition called diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy eventually leads to blindness and does not present symptoms in patients until it is virtually impossible to treat, so preventative testing is essential to avoiding this type of diabetic health complication.

Unfortunately, the racial and ethnic minority diabetic population in the US also has disproportionately less access to healthcare resources and preventative screening, which adds to the increased rate of health complications in this group of people.

So what is there to do about these health disparities in underserved populations that are rampant in our society?

Health Disparities are Everywhere, But You Can Make a Difference

Health disparities are all around us, and they are getting worse. The economic, educational and social environments in which we live contribute to health disparities in underserved populations by creating barriers to getting adequate care to the populations that need it the most. 

However, health equity is possible if we work together to address these barriers head-on. It’s a goal worth pursuing because it will improve both individual lives and our collective well-being by reducing unnecessary suffering caused by unequal access to health care services.

Health equity refers not just to the absence of disparities, but also the presence of equitable outcomes for disadvantaged populations. When talking about making progress toward achieving health equity, it helps if you keep two things in mind: 

  1. First off, whatever strategy or tactic you use needs to be tailored specifically toward addressing your community’s specific situation (i.e., what makes sense given its situation). 
  2. Second off—and perhaps most importantly—you need an understanding that achieving health equity is not something that happens overnight; rather it is something that evolves over time through consistent efforts made continuously by people actively engaged in changing their circumstances.

IRIS and the Fight to End Health Disparities in Underserved Populations

Screening for diabetic retinopathy is an important step in preventing vision loss from diabetes and reducing the disproportional impact diabetes complications have on minorities. At IRIS, we’re doing our part to help prevent blindness from diabetic retinopathy by helping providers to provide high quality care for their undiagnosed patients.

We provide a solution that works with a variety of fundus cameras, ranging in price and portability. The solution integrates with any EMR, enabling automated patient identification and order creation. Image enhancement software is automatically applied to each retinal image, giving eye care providers a heightened ability to identify potential disease and severity. This solution can be portable if using a handheld fundus camera and is easy for general healthcare practitioners and in-home healthcare providers to use, increasing rates of preventative screenings that ultimately lead to better healthcare outcomes.

Interested in fighting health disparities in underserved populations by implementing IRIS in your healthcare practice? Reach out to us today to inquire about a free demo of our technology.


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