Medical Staff Metting to Discuss Patient Diseases.

Why Advancing Health Equity is Important

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health equity as when everyone can attain their full health potential. No one is at a disadvantage because of social position or socially determined circumstances.

It sounds wonderful. Health equity helps create a just society with a healthier population and more productive workforce. Unfortunately, as we know, this isn’t the reality. Disparities abound. A health disparity refers to a higher burden of illness, injury or mortality experienced by one population group when compared to another.

Take COVID-19: Racial and ethnic minority groups are experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death, according to CDC data. Early in the pandemic, African Americans accounted for 41% of deaths in Michigan from COVID-19, yet African Americans make up 13.6% of the state’s population.

Health disparities extend* far beyond the pandemic too. Black men are 70% more likely to die from stroke when compared to non-Latino white men, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Black and Indigenous women have a maternal mortality rate* that’s two to three times higher than white mothers.

There are also health care disparities, which typically refer to differences between groups regarding health insurance coverage and access to and quality of care. The rural Appalachian region, for instance, struggles with access to care.* The region has 35% fewer mental health providers, 26% fewer dentists and 28% fewer specialists than the rest of the nation.

The conditions in which people live, work and grow are called social determinants of health, and they can influence these disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities can face bias* at hospitals and doctor’s offices. Access to healthy food, housing instability, income, education and local crime are some other social determinants that can raise or lower peoples’ risk of getting sick and dying.

“The research is clear: Social determinants influence health disparities and burden certain population groups with higher rates of illness, injury, disability and mortality,” said Daniel J. Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “To eliminate these disadvantages, communities must have equal access to the resources that improve quality of life.”

Addressing these racial, economic and geographic drivers of health disparities is at the core of achieving greater health equity. The global health crisis – combined with unrest over economic inequality and racial discrimination – got people talking about it in a new way. Public health institutions are offering guidance and companies and other entities are asking questions.

In late 2020, for instance, Blue Cross deepened its involvement in this space by launching the Office of Health and Health Care Disparities. Blue Cross has already been involved in collaborative, nationwide efforts for years. These new initiatives, however, include an education program that aims to combat unconscious bias among providers.

“When you don’t feel the health care system understands your needs, you don’t necessarily make it a priority to go see a doctor,” said Dr. James Grant, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross. “The Office of Health and Health Care Disparities is a starting point to address these concerns by educating providers and reaching out to our members who are part of traditionally higher-risk communities.”

Recent research can help those employers exploring how to support health equity within their business. An analysis,* based on survey data of large U.S. employers, from McKinsey & Company found that Black, Latino, Asian and LGBTQ+ employees were less likely to report receiving the care they needed. They also were more likely than the overall employee population to consider switching jobs for benefits-related reasons.

The report recommends employers take action in three areas to support greater health equity:

  • Expand benefits that help employees meet housing, transportation and other basic needs
  • Ensure benefits are easy to access, understand and use
  • Change workplace culture to destigmatize receiving care

The business sector is indeed a key component to breaking down longstanding barriers preventing health equity. Understanding and addressing root challenges, keeping disparities from growing and taking meaningful action are important steps forward.

*Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan doesn’t own or control this website.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.