Why everyone should care about health disparities – and what to do about them

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The coronavirus pandemic and the equity movement have shined a spotlight on longstanding systemic problems that contribute to health disparities linked with factors such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and sexual identity.

But health disparities don't only affect those facing them. In a time of deep division and uncertainty, experts see opportunities to remind people everyone is connected.

"Not addressing inequities and not assuring opportunities for the most vulnerable in our society actually harm us all," said Dr. Lisa Cooper, founder and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity in Baltimore. "We're all paying for the cost that this has had on our economy and health care system."

That cost is steep.

Racial health disparities result in about $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in lost productivity each year, according to a 2018 analysis from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the nonprofit Altarum. On top of being costly, disparities hinder the nation's overall health, as groups who historically have had access to fewer resources have higher rates of illness and death from a variety of preventable conditions.

Working to close gaps in health and health care will take community and legislative efforts. But just as important are conversations everyone can have each day to raise awareness, point out injustices and advocate for change, Cooper said.

"As an individual, you can hold yourself accountable by becoming more aware of how your own attitudes and behaviors perpetuate the problem," she said. "You can hold other people accountable by becoming an upstander or ally of people from marginalized groups. Many community organizations are now offering implicit bias and anti-racist upstander training."

People also can become involved in community endeavors and vote for policymakers who support equitable efforts, Cooper said.

A 2020 advisory from the American Heart Association defined health disparities as "a particular type of health difference that is closely linked with social, economic, and environmental disadvantage. Health disparities adversely affect groups of people who have systematically experienced greater obstacles to health" based on racial or ethnic background, or other characteristics linked to discrimination or exclusion.