How healthcare providers can address health equity

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By Ethan Popowitz

Here’s something we can all agree on: every person deserves to live a healthy life.

It’s a goal that every healthcare provider and life sciences organization strives to accomplish. When patients have access to quality healthcare, they are empowered to take a proactive approach to their own health and well-being and build beneficial relationships with their physicians. Without that access, it becomes incredibly difficult for people to overcome illness and injury.

Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. do not have easy access to healthcare—and the barriers they face are not of their own making. Social, economic, and environmental factors are often insurmountable obstacles to the care those people need and deserve.

Healthcare providers and their organizations are on the front lines of addressing the biggest problems surrounding health equity. In this blog, we’ll cover a few strategies healthcare organizations are deploying to not only boost health outcomes but also strengthen the economy and help to build a strong, more equitable future.

Health equity vs. Health equality: What’s the difference?

In a video series with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Dr. David R. Williams says that many people mistake ‘health equality’ for ‘health equity.’ While the terms may sound similar, the implementation of one over the other can lead to dramatically different outcomes for marginalized and vulnerable people.

Health equality means giving each patient the same resources and treatment. This approach doesn’t always work in practice because some people need more support—or a different kind of support—than others.

An approach to care that is equitable, however, recognizes that each person has different needs and prioritizes resources and treatment appropriately.

Say, for example, that four Definitive Healthcare writers (Ethan, Nicole, Alex, and Emma) went out to split a pizza. In an equal distribution, the four of us split the pizza evenly, two slices per person. But equality doesn’t always mean fairness. What if Alex and Emma had already eaten lunch while Nicole and I (I often forget to eat lunch even when I pack it) hadn’t eaten anything? In a more equitable distribution, Alex and Emma may only get one slice of pizza while the much hungrier writers get three. This way, everyone gets pizza according to their need, even if it calls for an unequal distribution of slices.

With definitions taken care of, let’s dig into each strategy healthcare organizations are using to create equitable access to care across the U.S.

Promote health literacy

The healthcare world is complex and, dare I say it, hard to wrap your head around sometimes. If you’re like me, and often find yourself up late, feeling sick, and searching online for home remedies, then you know the difficulties in navigating medical information. Even a conversation with your primary care provider could be loaded with jargon and terminology.

The problem is a matter of perspective. It takes more than a decade of schooling and on-the-job experience to become a physician. Regular folk lack that experience, making it easy to get overloaded when a doctor explains a disease, prognosis, or treatment.

This is where “health literacy” enters the picture. The CDC describes health literacy as the ability to find, understand, and use health information. Health literacy is critical for patients to make informed decisions about their health.

An estimated 90 million Americans have poor health literacy. This population includes many marginalized groups, such as people receiving socioeconomic assistance, non-native English speakers, the elderly, and more. Studies have found that poor health literacy contributes to more health disparities, ineffective use of healthcare services, and a higher risk of mortality.

Fortunately, the CDC has a library of resources available to help organizations and communities improve health literacy. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy offers simple changes healthcare professionals can make to their communication that can help patients become more health literate. The HRSA also has plenty of resources to check out as a part of the Healthy People 2030 initiative.

Address the social determinants of health

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the elements of a person’s life that shape their health. This includes socioeconomic status, education, physical environment, social support network, access to healthcare, and more.

SDOH also contributes to health disparities and inequities. For example, people who don’t have access to grocery stores are less likely to have good nutrition. As a result, those people are more at risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity and may even have a lower life expectancy.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine outlined a “5As” strategy that healthcare organizations can use to address SDOH in the communities they serve. To summarize:

  1. Awareness. Providers should focus on identifying the social risks of both specific patients and populations of patients by asking screening questions. You can see an example of that from the Department of Health and Human Services here.
  2. Adjustment. Instead of directly addressing social needs, organizations can focus on adjusting clinical care, such as by offering evening and weekend clinic access, providing telehealth, using language translators, and more.
  3. Assistance. Healthcare providers should connect patients with social needs to the appropriate government and community resources.
  4. Alignment. Healthcare providers should partner with community organizations and invest in systems that positively impact health outcomes.
  5. Advocacy. Healthcare organizations should advocate for policies that distribute resources to people with social needs.

Expand health insurance

Since the start of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, the legislation has helped millions of people become insured. In fact, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) just hit a huge record: 16.3 million Americans signed up for 2023 health insurance coverage since open enrollment began on November 1, 2022.

While these are historic gains, data from The Commonwealth Fund and multiple studies argue that large coverage gaps remain in nearly every state. And people of color and low-income individuals are among the least insured in the country.

One reason why these coverage gaps exist is that eleven states (as of the time of writing) refuse to expand Medicaid services under the ACA. And, according to data from the Brookings Institute, many of these states have large populations of Black Americans.

Of course, racism has also significantly contributed to poorer health outcomes for people of color. The CDC cites a growing body of research that shows that racial and ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma, and more when compared to their White counterparts. According to a report from Deloitte, racism also takes a huge financial toll, costing the U.S. economy $16 trillion over the past 20 years.

Evidence shows that expanding health insurance coverage is not only essential for achieving equitable access to healthcare, but also is associated with improved mortality outcomes, poverty reductions, and protection from debilitating financial bills. Healthcare providers can play a role in filling the coverage gap by helping their communities advocate for policies that make health insurance more affordable, more accessible, and higher quality.

Learn more

While healthcare organizations alone do not have the power to completely achieve health equity, they do have the power to address disparities directly at the point of care and to impact many of the systems and organizations that create these disparities.

Healthcare providers can champion initiatives to hire people from diverse backgrounds and eliminate racial biases in healthcare settings. Telehealth and extended service hours can lower barriers to care, particularly among people of color and people living in rural areas. And advocating for government programs that help all people access the care they deserve are all meaningful steps to improving health and health equity.

As healthcare organizations strive for health equity, the healthcare space is sure to continue changing and progressing. Healthcare commercial intelligence can help you stay in tune with the most current healthcare industry developments. And for the insights you need to make more-informed strategies, start a free trial with Definitive Healthcare today.

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