Defining Health Equity: “I know it when I see it”

In the five months since I started at MACDC as the Program Director for Health Equity, I have struggled to define the key term imbedded in my title: health equity. Rather than using a single definition for this important term, I have found that the term is better described through examples, in other words, I know it when I see it.  

“I know it when I see it” is a concept popularized by the former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he described the concept as the threshold test for obscenity regarding protected speech. In the same way that obscenity has variable definitions yet is recognized when it exists, health equity is better defined by examples than by a static definition.  

Health equity is the opening of a grocery store to increase access to healthy, affordable food to low- and moderate-income residents who have disproportionate rates of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Health equity is advocating for increased state funding for no-interest lead abatement loans for low- and moderate-income homeowners and landlords. Health equity is providing transportation services for isolated seniors to access health care services and health-promoting activities. But despite having a clear sense of examples of initiatives that fall into the health equity bucket, it is often advantageous to have a succinct definition for health equity for shorter conversations. 

MACDC has not formally adopted a definition for health equity, and so, in order to better articulate what I do, I recently did some research into how other organizations define the term. The following are several definitions of health equity, followed by my initial reactions: 

The World Health Organization (WHO) 

Definition: Equity is the absence of avoidable, unfair, or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically, or by other means of stratification. "Health equity” or “equity in health” implies that ideally everyone should have a fair opportunity to attain their full health potential and that no one should be disadvantaged from achieving this potential. 

My reaction: I like that this definition begins by defining “equity” and then gets more specific in defining what we mean by health equity. The WHO leaves me wanting more detail about the systems and causes of inequity. 

Center for Disease Control (the other CDC)  

Definition: Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to “attain his or her full health potential” and no one is “disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.” Health inequities are reflected in differences in length of life; quality of life; rates of disease, disability, and death; severity of disease; and access to treatment. 

My reaction: I really like that this definition enumerates how health inequity manifests. This definition made me appreciate an aspect of the WHO definition, which the CDC definition lacks: the WHO names social, economic, demographic, and geographic as ways in which people might be subject to varying health outcomes. 

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) 

Definition: 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. 

My reaction: I really like that RWJF names the social determinants of health that cause health inequity. I have mixed feelings about the first sentence in their definition, which on one hand, describes the desired outcome (“everyone….to be as healthy as possible), on the other, doesn’t define what we mean by good health.  

American Public Health Association  

Definition: Everyone has the opportunity to attain their highest level of health. 

My reaction: Wow, this is an even more simplified version than the first sentence of the RWJF definition!I like that the definition is straight-forward, but also am concerned that its simplicity renders makes it less useful than the other definitions. 

I was curious to analyze these definitions together to better understand what they have in common. I started by creating a word bubble: 

To better understand the word bubble, I noted the words that appeared the biggest – meaning that they appeared most frequently. I came up with the following words: everyone, attain, fair, potential, opportunity. These five words seem to be moving toward a consensus definition – in fact, they almost make a sentence. But something is notably missing – there are no words that are specific to health! In fact, the words in this word bubble that are most directly tied to health, consistently appear the smallest. These words include disease, death, care, treatment, disability and almost entirely stem from the CDC definition. 

 

My analysis of the word bubble indicates that the definitions cited are in better agreement about how to define equity than they are about how to define health. I have a few theories as to why: 

 

One theory is that the definitions assume that we know what health is, but assume we need help defining equity.  

 

Conversely another theory is that health is just too difficult to define in the context of a succinct definition.  

 

The most compelling explanation for the absence of health-specific terms in these definitions is that differences in health status or health opportunities stem from the same inequities from which all unequal outcomes stem. Therefore, these definitions are more concerned with the cause (inequity) than the effect (health).  

 

I hope that instead of creating more confusion (which would be understandable), my analysis provides a bit of understanding of what health equity is. I think it helped me! Going forward, when someone asks me what I do, I’m going to go with something along the lines of: 

 

Health equity involves creating and supporting systems, environments, and policies that allow all individuals the potential to lead healthy lives. Health equity further involves dismantling systems, environments, and policies that have historically contributed to health disparities. When time allows, my explanation will undoubtedly be followed by a laundry list of examples of ways in which CDCs, and others, are actively working to promote health equity. I maintain that ultimately real-world examples will better explain health equity than any definition can. 

 

Do you or your organization have a go-to definition for health equity?