The difference between health disparities and health inequities. The difference between health disparities and health inequities is an important one, especially for those involved in the delivery of health care to patient populations of different ethnic or social strata. The US National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health offers a succinct exploration of the difference, and why it is vital to understand both the ways in which they are similar and differ:
“Health disparities” and “health equity” have become increasingly familiar terms in public health, but rarely are they defined explicitly. Ambiguity in the definitions of these terms could lead to misdirection of resources. This article discusses the need for greater clarity about the concepts of health disparities and health equity, proposes definitions, and explains the rationale based on principles from the fields of ethics and human rights.
If you look up the word “disparity” in a dictionary, you will most likely find it defined simply as difference, variation, or, perhaps, inequality, without further specification. But when the term “health disparity” was coined in the United States around 1990, it was not meant to refer to all possible health differences among all possible groups of people. Rather, it was intended to denote a specific kind of difference, namely, worse health among socially disadvantaged people and, in particular, members of disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups and economically disadvantaged people within any racial/ethnic group. However, this specificity has generally not been made explicit. Until the release of Healthy People 2020 in 2010, federal agencies had officially defined health disparities in very general terms, as differences in health among different population groups, without further specification.1,2 This article argues for the need to be explicit about the meaning of health disparities and the related term “health equity,” and proposes definitions based on concepts from the fields of ethics and human rights.
Not all health differences are health disparities. Examples of health differences that are not health disparities include worse health among the elderly compared with young adults, a higher rate of arm injuries among professional tennis players than in the general population, or, hypothetically, a higher rate of a particular disease among millionaires than non-millionaires. While these differences are unlikely to occupy prominent places in a public health agenda, there are many health differences that are important for a society to address but are not health disparities.
Link to our course on Healthcare Disparities Among Prenatal Patients, one area where understanding the difference between health disparities and health inequities can be helpful in providing a high quality of health care.