As effective vaccines and new therapies help the world begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still confronted with a long-standing challenge that the pandemic only underscored: the inequalities in the health care system.
Issues at the complex intersection of social justice and public health make it clear that health equity is still a goal we have yet to achieve. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), factors such as discrimination, unequal access to health care, inadequate housing, and gaps in wealth and education play a critical role in health inequity.
While COVID-19 highlighted the challenge of health inequality, the problem existed long before the pandemic. If you have an interest in public health and are considering enrolling in an online Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program, it can be beneficial to spend some time learning about the interplay between social justice and public health.
The Effects of Health Inequity
Examples that illustrate the effects of health inequity are not difficult to identify.
- A 2021 study by the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation determined that Black patients experienced significantly worse patient safety than white patients on six out of 11 patient safety indicators.
- In 2021, the CDC reported that Black women are three times more likely to lose their lives due to a pregnancy-related issue than white women.
- The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that between March 2020 and June 2021, Hispanic, Latino and non-Hispanic Black individuals were hospitalized due to COVID-19 at a rate that was 2.8 times more than non-Hispanic white individuals were hospitalized for the same illness.
What Practices Contribute to Gaps in Health Care?
Social, political and economic practices have long contributed to creating gaps in health care. Examples are:
- Redlining, or the practice of denying home mortgages to otherwise qualified buyers based solely on their race, impedes not only home ownership but also upward economic mobility in general. Although this practice is now prohibited, the adverse effects of its past use still create challenges for minorities.
- Gentrification to renovate an urban neighborhood or district so that it conforms to the taste of the white middle class has displaced people of color who have lived in the area for years or even decades.
Other common factors that disproportionately affect minority communities and deter their ability to access equitable health care include job insecurity, living in densely populated areas, racial housing segregation, exposure to environmental hazards and not receiving the same work-related benefits as white individuals (including health insurance and sick leave).
How Public Health Officials Can Address Disparities
Although communities are responsible for addressing the systemic racism prevalent in their jurisdiction, the onus falls primarily on public health officials to develop and implement strategies to address issues related to social justice and public health.
The first step is simply acknowledging the vital intersection of social justice, health care and public health. Other solutions include the following:
Better Training for Physicians
Physicians and nurses are the link between the public and community members’ collective and individual health. These health care professionals are the people with whom patients primarily have contact, so it is vital they learn how societal factors, in addition to biological factors, influence health.
For example, reliable access to food, transportation, education, safe housing, insurance and jobs all affect a person’s health. Social inequities that racial and ethnic minorities and marginalized communities have disproportionately endured undermine the ability to prioritize and protect health.
A good place to start is by making courses on social justice and inequity at medical schools required rather than optional and ensuring that such courses are given the same weight as other areas of study.
Analyzing and Addressing Social Determinants of Health
Physicians, nurses and other employees who work in a clinical setting are not the only ones who need exposure to better training and an understanding of the various social determinants of health.
All individuals who are involved in the theoretical and policy side of health need to analyze the factors that affect a person’s overall health. These factors must be considered when discussing, developing and implementing public health policies and making decisions about where to direct resources.
Expanding Health Care Options in Marginalized Communities
With the appropriate expertise, public health officials can work toward enhancing access to health care — including testing, treatments and preventive measures — for racial and ethnic minorities.
As the CDC has noted, this can be accomplished by fostering partnerships among researchers, community groups, tribal medicine leaders, professional groups and other community members to ensure that important information about public health is disseminated throughout racial and ethnic minority communities.
Working With Other Sectors
Because social justice and public health issues are so intertwined, it is important for public health professionals to build connections and collaborate with professionals in other sectors, including education, business, transportation and housing, as well as community and faith-based organizations.
These groups can share information and develop the best strategies for reducing social and economic barriers to health care.
Confronting Health Care Inequality With a Social Justice Approach
The complicated relationship between social justice and public health exposes an array of challenges, and individuals with the appropriate expertise can address those challenges in a way that equitably prioritizes and protects all individuals. If you are interested in learning how structural racism engenders health inequity and working to make a difference in public health, then explore the USC online MPH degree program to see how it can help you achieve your goals. Embark on a rewarding career in public health today.