Health equity means fair and equal access to care so that everyone can achieve their highest level of health.1 It incorporates not just life-saving care, but also preventative and gender-affirming care. However, social and economic obstacles can prevent some minority populations from accessing the care they need, leading to global health disparities.
Public health policies are essential building blocks of better health equity. Along with research and practical health programs, implementing health policies can help break down socioeconomic barriers and allow broader access to healthcare.2 Below, we’ll discuss some examples of public health policies and their impact on health equity around the world. We’ll also unpack some of the biggest challenges to promoting health equity and strategies to overcome them.
Understanding Social Determinants of Health
To create effective policies that promote health equity, governing bodies must understand health barriers. Understanding social determinants of health, including environmental pollution, discrimination and housing, can help governments shape effective health policies. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services groups social determinants of health into five domains:5
- Economic stability
- Education access and quality
- Healthcare access and quality
- Neighborhood and built environment
- Social and community context
How Public Health Policies Promote Health Equity
Public health policies can directly or indirectly impact wellness across a population. For example, consider policies implemented to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mandated masking, social distancing, and travel bans.3 Public health policies that promote health equity may not have such a direct impact but can encourage greater access to healthcare over time.
Here are a few relevant policy examples:
Universal Health Coverage
Universal health coverage tackles one of the most immediate barriers to healthcare: affordability. With universal coverage, individuals can access insurance regardless of their income or employment status. In the United States, the Affordable Care Act is an example of a policy that promotes greater access to healthcare without reducing the quality of care.4
Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
Health promotion and disease prevention policies help to stop the spread of diseases that may affect some populations more than others. Again, COVID-19 policies are a good example. Other examples include handwashing regulations in food service businesses and mandated sex education in schools.
Access to Medicines and Vaccines
Improved access to medicines and vaccines, particularly in rural areas, can prevent long-term health conditions and help patients avoid more expensive, challenging care in the future.
Effective Public Health Policies By Region
Health disparities exist around the world. In high-income countries, health equity is influenced by the welfare state, or the government allocation of public resources and services. Research suggests that there is less health inequality in countries with an extensive welfare state, such as Norway and Sweden.6 However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the policies of Nordic countries can be applied everywhere. Effective policies must address the needs and disparities of the region where they are being implemented.
For example, in rural, high-poverty areas of the global south, disease prevention programs and access to vaccines may help reduce geographical health disparities. These policies are often implemented by international organizations, including the World Health Organization, which funds research and evidence-based programs to improve health equity in low-income nations.7
Case Study: Free Access to Retroviral Therapy in South Africa
In South Africa, as in the U.S., the AIDS epidemic has disproportionately affected Black populations. In 2004, the South African government began offering free retroviral therapy to all HIV-positive patients, regardless of income or health status, to counter this massive health disparity.
Since the program began, annual mortality rates in HIV-positive patients have been reduced by 27%, with outcomes for Black Africans aged 25-49 most significantly impacted.8 This is an example of a public health policy that can improve health equity by addressing an issue primarily affecting minority populations.
Challenges in Promoting Health Equity Through Public Health Policies
Public health policies are crucial to countering global health disparities but aren’t always easy to implement. These are among the most notable challenges to effective policy change:
- Lack of data: Policy changes must be well-informed and region-specific. Identifying obstacles that impact health access takes time, and those obstacles may change by the time a policy can be implemented
- Public backlash: Sudden policy changes, particularly in response to an emergency like COVID-19, are frequently met with backlash.9 Education and advocacy are crucial
- Limited resources: Research and implementation take time, expertise, and funding
Strategies for Overcoming Challenges
It is possible to overcome inequities and promote better population health through public health policies. Strategies that can help create targeted, practical public policy include:
- Advocacy and mobilization: Advocacy and grass-roots mobilization can help spread awareness of health disparities and encourage public acceptance of policy changes
- Strengthened health systems and infrastructure: Well-funded public health systems create better access to healthcare, especially for those with government-funded health coverage
- Collaborative partnerships: Collaboration between governments and multi-national or non-governmental organizations can supplement funding and help implement public health policies in high-poverty areas
- Evidence-based policymaking: It’s crucial that policies are rooted in thorough, detailed research. Data collection should be a continuous process that informs and influences policies
The Ongoing Process of Creating Better Public Health Policies
Creating better public health policies is an ongoing process. While it takes advocacy, intervention, and a lot of education, implementing effective public health policies will improve health equity worldwide. As global demographics, challenges, and health concerns change, policies will have to change with them. Continued research and advocacy will always be necessary, so don’t hesitate to learn more.
An online Master of Public Health from Kent State University can be your first step toward a career in improving public health policies and advocacy. With the right tools, you can make an impact on global health equity. Connect with an admissions outreach advisor today to learn more about starting your career path with an online degree. Schedule a call.
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from cdc.gov/healthequity/whatis/index.html
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from cdc.gov/minorityhealth/publications/health_equity/index.html
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023 from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8164261/
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31747174/.
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from health.gov/healthypeople/priority-areas/social-determinants-health
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6044092/
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from who.int/health-topics/health-equity
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, fromm pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35290814/
- Retrieved on August 18, 2023, from npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/05/13/1098071284/this-is-how-many-lives-could-have-been-saved-with-covid-vaccinations-in-each-sta