National Academy of Medicine

Making the Case for Hastening Progress Toward Health Equity

By Eve J. Higginbotham
January 24, 2013 | Commentary

Health equity has been defined in many ways, but essentially the concept focuses on promoting social justice rather than economic or social status as the primary means for determining access to good health and well-being (Braveman, 2006). Another way, however, of viewing the concept of health equity is through the lens of social justice, given the longstanding disparities in access to opportunities available to different populations in our communities. Thus, not only is the aspiration of achieving health for all essential to a civilized and just society, but also, most importantly, health equity is a fundamental measure of our humanity. Health is of critical moral importance because it protects opportunities to pursue goals, reduce pain and suffering from poor health, and extend life expectancy. The poor health outcomes observed among people of color relative to the majority group population reduces their fair share of the available societal and economic opportunities (Daniel, 2008).

Although historical injustices cannot be rewritten, there are critical moral and eco-nomic imperatives that drive researchers, policy makers, and public health professionals to seek solutions that promote health equity. The principle underlying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an ethical framework for society to address health inequalities. According to this principle, all human rights (civil, political, economic, social, and cultural) are interdependent and inseparable. For example, the inability to realize one’s economic and social rights (the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to a high-quality education, the right to attain the highest standard of health, etc.) is an impediment to realizing one’s civil and political rights. Additionally, denial of the freedom of speech and the right to participate in the political process can potentially constitute a serious threat to health (Braveman, 2006).

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily of the authors’ organizations, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies). The paper is intended to help inform and stimulate discussion. It is not a report of the NAM or the National Academies. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.