Health equity is a central theme in today’s public health education initiatives. Professionals working in this area must determine the disparities preventing individuals and communities from achieving better health outcomes and partner with various stakeholders, including politicians and healthcare leadership, to make lasting improvements.
Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education (MSEd) with a Concentration in Public Health Education program prepares students to engage these issues in practice, breaking down barriers to wellness across demographics. Graduates explore the current systems and structures exacerbating disparities and how to alter those systems to strengthen public health. Through courses like Equity Issues in Public Health and Healthcare in the United States: Structures, Systems, and Policies, students consider the impact of biases on population health and learn to personalize outreach efforts for vulnerable populations.
Pressing Equity Concerns in Public Health
Leading organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Public Health Association (APHA), have highlighted several pressing equity concerns for public health professionals to address:
- Food insecurity. As the APHA states, food insecurity affects about 11% of U.S. households. Lack of food can significantly impact individual and public health, leading to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
- Structural racism and discrimination. Institutional policies can perpetuate and exacerbate disparities. For example, race-adjusted clinical algorithms historically overestimated the kidney function of Black patients and kept them from receiving timely interventions, reports the Commonwealth Fund. Public health professionals will be instrumental in revising harmful race-adjusted screening tools.
- Disparate healthcare access. Low-income and rural communities may not have the same access to healthcare services as other groups. Healthcare provider shortages and a lack of transportation and health insurance can keep vulnerable populations from accessing treatment for acute care, let alone preventive services, severely impacting progress toward equitable health outcomes.
- Public trust. The pandemic laid bare some challenges in communicating health-related information to the public. Mixed messages lowered the public’s trust in health officials and institutions, and public health professionals must move forward in a way that rebuilds trust.
How Can Public Health Professionals Address Equity Issues?
Addressing equity issues in public health is a complex endeavor that requires a multifaceted approach, and making progress will take time. However, public health professionals have many strategies they can use to combat disparities, including the following:
- Recognize your own biases. Everyone has internal narratives and biases that affect how they perceive others and the world. Public health professionals are no different. However, they can reframe their outlook and become better equity advocates by reflecting on their attitudes and beliefs and participating in diversity and inclusion training.
- Understand social determinants of health. Public health frameworks must consider the impact of social determinants of health, such as poverty, racism, and access to education, transportation, housing and healthy food. These factors can significantly influence health outcomes for individuals and communities, so addressing them is essential to achieving health equity.
- Build cultural competency and sensitivity. Cultural competency involves understanding and respecting the cultural backgrounds of others. Public health professionals should strive to provide information and services sensitive to cultural norms, values and beliefs, which often means adapting their communication strategies.
- Advocate for all. Public health professionals must consider the needs and voices of all as they work to form policies and initiatives that dismantle longstanding disparities. As health literacy firm Communicate Health states, “For too long, people […] directly and disproportionately impacted by health inequities have been shut out of decision-making processes that directly impact their lives. If we’re going to rebuild trust in public institutions (and ultimately in public health), we have to start by talking to people who are excluded from these institutions.”
Improving equity in public health education requires a new generation of professionals committed to community engagement and meeting the needs of all. Public health professionals can promote fairness in healthcare policies and communications to support the well-being of the most vulnerable populations.