What are Health Disparities?



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There are many definitions of health disparities.  Here are a few for your consideration:
“. . . Differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality, and burden of diseases and other adverse health conditions that exist among specific population groups in the United States."  ~ National Institutes of Health (NIH) Strategic Research Plan to Reduce and Ultimately Eliminate Health Disparities (October 6, 2000) NIH Strategic Plan PDF Document

Translation:  differences in getting diseases among certain population groups, how long you live with them, deaths that result, and additional problems and health conditions that may exist. 

". . . Differences that occur by gender, race or ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, or sexual orientation."
United States Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy People 2010: Understanding and Improving Health (November 2000) HP2010 Improving Health PDF Document

“. . .Inequalities in the distribution of valued goals (e.g., health) and access to resources for achieving those goals (e.g., use of health care or preventive services) University of Kansas (KU) Workgroup on Health Promotion. “Promoting Health for all:  An Action Planning Guide for Improving and Eliminating Health Disparities in Community Health”

With the launch of Healthy People 2010 in January 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services provided the United States with standards for improving the public health system at the local, state, and national levels based on two overarching goals:

  1. Increase quality and years of healthy life among all ages of people living in the United States.
  2. Eliminate health disparities among different segments of the population by specifically targeting the segments that need to improve the most.

These goals are maintained by Healthy People 2020.

Why public health is concerned about disparities?

Over the last two decades, overall health in the United States has improved.  However, there are striking disparities in the burden of illness and death experienced by African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, and underserved groups such as disadvantaged rural Whites. 

The most striking disparities include shorter life expectancy as well as higher rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, infant mortality, stroke, asthma, sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness.  These disparities are believed to be the result of complex interactions among biological factors, the environment, and specific health behaviors.

According to Healthy Kansans 2010 (set of recommendations to improve the health of all Kansans that is aligned with Healthy People 2010), lower socioeconomic and education levels, inadequate and unsafe housing, lack of access to care, quality of care, and living in close proximity to environnmental hazards disproportionately affect racial, ethnic, and underserved populations and contribute to poorer health outcomes. 

Disparities are evident in nearly every health indicator in Kansas (i.e. heart disease, diabetes, obesity, elevated blood level, low birth weight).  And disparities in income and education levels are associated with differences in the occurrence of these health indicators. (NIH “Strategic Research Plan and Budget to Reduce and Ultimately Eliminate Health Disparities,” Volume 1, Fiscal Years 2002 – 2006, US Department of Health and Human Services, p. 4). 

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