When a group experiences higher rates of cancer, diabetes, or obesity when compared with other groups, the difference may be defined as a health disparity. Health disparities can be related to race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, age, and disability. Typically, health disparities occur because people in vulnerable groups face obstacles that limit access to health-promoting resources and health care. The following circumstances often lead to health disparities.
Lack of health insurance coverage
Individuals without health insurance may wait until a condition is unbearable or severe before seeking care. For example, a woman has no health insurance may not seek prenatal care. When pregnant women do not get prenatal care they are more likely to have low-birthweight babies, and their babies are more likely to die.
Lack of transportation
Individuals without transportation face many challenges that lead to health disparities. Patients may not be able to keep healthcare appointments, get to a pharmacy to pick up prescriptions or go to diabetes education or cardiac rehabilitation classes. Rural residents may have extra difficulty because public transit systems are mostly in urban areas.
Limited physical activity
Health disparities such as obesity and chronic diseases are linked to limited physical activity. However, individuals living in areas where the streets are not safe for walking, and where there are no parks or open spaces may get few opportunities to engage in intentional physical activity. Children may not be able to play outside in neighborhoods marred by violence.
Limited access to healthy food
In many areas of the country, people live miles from grocery stores, farmers markets, and places where they can get fresh and healthy food. Known as food deserts, these areas tend to have mostly fast food places and convenience stores, both of which sell highly-processed foods that can lead to health issues. Although families may receive supplemental nutrition assistance to purchase healthy food, that is difficult when it is not available.
Steps toward eliminating health disparities
Eliminating health disparities requires a community approach that brings many people to the table. Health care professionals, individuals, members of the faith community, policy makers, health educators, business leaders, and others can work together to eliminate health disparities. Implementing policies that help people gain access to regular health care, healthy food, and places to be physically active can help reduce health disparities in many groups.