Health Equity: Treating People as Partners, Not Paperwork
Second installment of a series on health equity
As a health equity strategist, I know this much for sure: Our health circumstances are as unique to us as our fingerprints.
Though two individuals may have the same or similar medical conditions, their socioeconomic and racial backgrounds — as well as their family histories, personal habits, and even access to transportation — significantly impact their experiences with healthcare.
At Belong Health, we embrace this complex tapestry of influences whenever we commit ourselves to whole-person care. It’s that deep investment in understanding the individual, in fact, that sets our work apart and keeps our members engaged.
But even a focus on the individual can’t pull our attention from a troubling nation-wide pattern: for countless Americans, healthcare has become a “nice-to-have” — something to get around to only when time and money allow.
That pattern, if left under-resourced or misunderstood, only widens health disparities in catastrophic ways. So let’s get to the root of it.
What are health disparities?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify health disparities as preventable differences, experienced by socially disadvantaged populations, in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health.
But a bird’s-eye definition won’t quite suffice here. So let me instead tell you the story of a former patient of mine. We’ll call him Alex*.
When I met Alex, he was a taxi driver with uncontrolled diabetes. While he clearly wanted to get a handle on his condition, he simply didn’t have the means or time to do so. After all, Alex had a multigenerational family of six at home, relying on his solo income.
That meant a lot of time spent behind the wheel, caring for everyone but himself.
As might be expected, Alex’s work was sporadic and his hours were chaotic. On any given day, he was lucky to find time for breaks to take medication, to eat healthy, to stay hydrated, or to attend medical appointments.
Additionally, his healthcare coverage was poor, a fact which made accessing medications and blood sugar monitoring supplies a frequent challenge.
Still, Alex kept driving. He had to. “Every time I pass up a ride,” he told me, “that’s time I might have spent supporting my family.” For Alex, family was everything — and yet, ironically, his job and health risked stealing him away from the very same people he was working to protect.
Combined, Alex’s stressful job and heavy demands at home created a health disparity that impacted not only his own life but those of his five other family members, too. He was looking after them — but who was looking after him? Alex’s circumstance is all too common. For many members of socially disadvantaged populations, it’s a story that cuts especially close to the bone.
Reducing disparities, championing equity
Across America, numerous factors, from employment status to disability to ZIP code and gender identity — congeal to create health disparities that unfairly shorten lives or keep people just like Alex in a constant state of uncertainty.
Health equity work, where I’ve dedicated so much of my life, proactively addresses each of those barriers, head-on, first by seeking to understand their roles in an individual’s life — then, by guiding that individual towards their fullest potential.
As one might imagine, this field of work is as deeply rewarding as it is profoundly challenging. Just as inequity is multifaceted and persistent, its solutions must be, as well. They often must tackle a multitude of big issues — including income inequality, job and food scarcity, and community violence — at their roots.
If they are to be successful, those solutions must be innovative. And they must never let up.