Health Disparities: A Foray into Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status

By Danélia Botes

January 31, 2024


Health disparities, preventable health differences linked to social, economic, and environmental disadvantages, are a critical concern in modern healthcare. This article explores the pillars of health disparities science, namely race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES), and their impact on health outcomes.

Pillars of Health Disparities Science:

The first pillar, race and ethnicity, are treated as a social construct that significantly influences individuals’ lived experiences. These categorisations, based on phenotype, reflect the social hierarchy of access to power, wealth, and opportunity. Ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to broader cultural expressions in certain geographic regions.

The second pillar, SES, refers to individual, household, or family-based social and economic position. Lower SES is strongly linked with health outcomes, and contributes to health disparities through limited resources and opportunities to engage in health-promoting activities.

Minority Programs and Their Role:

In 1990, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Office of Minority Programs. This marked a significant move towards resolving health disparities. This initiative aimed to enhance upstream health determinants and reduce racial and ethnic differences in morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, in 2010, the mandate of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) was to lead and coordinate research with all NIH entities. Their goal was to improve the health of all racial and ethnic minority groups and economically disadvantaged individuals. This emphasis on minority programs demonstrates a commitment to addressing health disparities at their source. It also highlights the importance of targeted, data-driven initiatives in health outcome improvement. 

Health Equity as an Aspirational Goal:

Health equity, the idea that everyone should have a fair opportunity to attain their full health potential, is an aspirational goal in health disparities science. It requires coordination among health systems, clinicians, patients, and communities. Moreover, it extends beyond reducing disparities to creating a health-related landscape that ensures everyone has access to the resources and opportunities necessary to achieve optimal health.

The Urgency of Focus in Health Disparities Science:

Despite the importance of other indicators of marginalisation and social determinants of health, health disparities research must remain focused on race and ethnicity and SES. It is critical to identify and address the specific mechanisms through which health disparities persist and to develop targeted interventions, higher-quality clinical care, and policies addressing the diverse needs within and across disadvantaged communities.

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