Writing about health equity really means writing about health inequity. That’s indicative of the challenge facing the industry: So many families in the United States grapple with uneven access to affordable, high-quality care.
Stakeholders have planned initiatives and formed partnerships vowing to tackle the problem. Some efforts are just getting off the ground, while others have moved past the pilot-program stage. It’s encouraging to see leaders coming together to devise ways to improve patient outcomes and address preventive care—trying to keep people well rather than seeing them first as patients. But the scope of the problem is so massive and its roots so deep that individual efforts, even those with sizable commitments of manpower and dollars, seem tiny. And the solution involves more than better access to doctors. It’s awareness. It’s housing. It’s nutrition. It’s transportation.
In a report last summer, consulting firm Deloitte estimated the economic cost of health disparities at $320 billion annually. That sum could top $1 trillion annually by 2040 if the problem isn’t addressed, according to the company.
For several months, health disparities reporter Kara Hartnett dug through data to map and report on areas of the U.S. where social vulnerability is the highest and access to healthcare is the poorest. The project, titled “Unwell: How health inequity maps out across America,” took her to New York, Arizona and Louisiana. As she points out in the resulting collection of four stories, the situations she found in those communities are common, not exceptional.
“I wasn’t surprised by what I found because access to healthcare is often a part of the social vulnerability equation,” Hartnett told me. “The healthcare system has maintained inequities rather than counteracted them and must contend with the disenfranchisement of these communities to rectify disparities.”
Fundamental shifts are underway in healthcare today—health systems combining, insurers snapping up providers, big-name companies like Amazon and Best Buy racing into the space, tech advancements changing workers’ roles and partnerships promoting value-based care. The announcements are garnering a lot of attention and the efforts will benefit the players and some consumers.
The harder work of improving access for all can’t take a back seat. Tackling health disparities must be a top priority too, for all our sakes.