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Defining Health Equity

There are many different definitions of health equity. It is important that communities agree on a definition to reflect their vision and goals for the health and wellness of their community members. Definitions of health equity typically include one or more of the following concepts:

  • Ability to achieve the best possible level of health or live one's healthiest life
  • Absence of health and healthcare disparities
  • Elimination of challenges that cause inequities, such as poverty and discrimination
  • Access to opportunities that promote health, including healthcare and fair employment

The definition of health equity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation incorporates justice, structural barriers, and opportunities for healthy living:

“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration's definition includes eliminating disparities:

“Health equity is the absence of disparities or avoidable differences among socioeconomic and demographic groups or geographical areas in health status and health outcomes such as disease, disability, or mortality.”

The American Public Health Association defines health equity simply as:

“Everyone has the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.”

Many factors may affect how a community defines health equity, including historical context, cultural norms, and spiritual practices. The Urban Indian Health Institute, for example, describes the concept of indigenous health equity:

“Health equity will be achieved when our efforts are grounded in our culture and traditional knowledge systems.”

Communities should use a definition that reflects their vision and goals for the health and well-being of their community members. Communities may also consider framing health equity so it resonates with community members. Module 2 discusses the importance of creating a common language for health equity. It describes additional considerations for framing health equity and the importance of differentiating between health equity, the social determinants of health, and health disparities.

Resources to Learn More

Defining Rural Population Health and Health Equity
Discusses population health and health equity in the context of rural and frontier health to assist healthcare providers in their efforts to improve the health and well-being of rural populations.
Organization(s): National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH)
Date: 7/2020

Health Equity
Offers reports, fact sheets, and infographics discussing the issues associated with health equity.
Organization(s): American Public Health Association (APHA)

What Is Health Equity? And What Difference Does a Definition Make?
Details the process of developing a definition for advancing health equity. Demonstrates how definitions can be modified to meet the needs of diverse audiences.
Author(s): Braveman, P., Arkin, E., Orleans, T., Proctor, D., & Plough, A.
Organization(s): Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)
Date: 4/2017

What Is Health Equity, and Why Does It Matter?
An interview with David R. Williams, PhD, Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, discussing concepts related to health equity and disparities.
Organization(s): Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI)
Date: 2/2016