What is Health Equity?

How We Define Health Equity, Disparity, Inequality, and Inequity

There is little consensus about the meaning of the terms health disparities, health inequalities, or health inequities, but how these terms are defined have practical implications for the type of data that are collected and which indicators are monitored by government agencies (Braveman, Annual Review Public Health, 2006. 27: 167-94).  One definition widely used in the U.S. public health literature, offered by Whitehead (1990), states, “Equity in health implies that ideally everyone should have a fair opportunity to attain their full health potential and, more pragmatically, that no one should be disadvantaged from achieving this potential, if it can be avoided.” Further, she defined equity in health care as “…equal access to available care for equal need, equal utilization for equal need, [and] equal quality of care for all.” 

The U.S. Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have adopted similar perspectives on health disparities defining them as, “…differences in health outcomes and their determinants between segments of the population, as defined by social, demographic, environmental, and geographic attributes.”  Although sometimes used interchangeably with health disparities, the CDC distinguishes health inequalities as a term used “…to refer to summary measures of population health associated with individual- or group-specific attributes (e.g., income, education, or race/ethnicity)” and  health inequities as a “…subset of health inequalities that are modifiable, associated with social disadvantage, and considered ethically unfair”