Residents of Chicago’s Hyde Park have an average life expectancy of 82.3 years.

But their neighbors in the adjacent Washington Park neighborhood have a life expectancy of only 68.9 years.

The causes of such differences–and what can be done to remedy them–are at the core of an emerging trend in public health known as health equity. As summarized by the Centers for Disease Control, “Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.”

Issues Contributing to Health Disparities

Life expectancy is greatly diminished by chronic diseases, which the CDC says are experienced in greater numbers by:

  • People of color
  • People with disabilities
  • People living in rural communities
  • Older adults
  • People with mental or substance use disorders
  • People with less than a high school education
  • People with lower incomes
  • People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender

Chronic diseases that lead to illness, disability, and death include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, among others. Factors contributing to high rates of disease are complex, but some can be traced to behavioral factors such as diet, tobacco use, and engagement in physical activity, as well as access to medical services.

The Public Health Role

While solutions require widespread understanding and assistance from an assortment of professionals and organizations, public health leaders can be instrumental in improving health equities in the communities they serve.

The CDC notes that some of the greatest advances in public health, such as water fluoridation and motor vehicle safety, came from the passage of laws and regulations championed by health advocates.

Public health leaders are on the front lines engaging communities, identifying needs, conducting analyses, and developing partnerships with diverse coalitions to affect change.

Three main areas of influence of public health officials are:

  • Policy improvements. For example, a voluntary school wellness policy aimed at ensuring food and drink options meet certain standards.
  • Systems improvements. For example, tobacco screening and referral protocols in a hospital system.
  • Environmental improvements. For example, changes to a street infrastructure that enhances connectivity and promotes physical activity.

Each area requires a carefully planned approach. But there are many examples of successful programs that have improved the health of targeted populations.

Fighting Obesity in North Minneapolis

As an example, the Minneapolis Health Department (MHD) developed strategies to address obesity issues in North Minneapolis. Among its actions, the MHD:

  • Placed bike share kiosks next to parks, encouraging families to ride the bikes to parks and engage in physical activity there.
  • Implemented Safe Routes to School to encourage students to walk or bike to schools.
  • Used targeted media, advertising, and outreach to make residents aware of the biking and walking resources.
  • Provided resources and funding to encourage residents to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, including produce available at a local farmers’ market.

An Exciting Time for Public Health

While the challenges are daunting, the opportunities to improve lives through health equity efforts are tremendous. Trained individuals with an in-depth understanding of public health matters have a chance to dramatically improve the lives of thousands of people.

For a deeper understanding of the issue, download the full Health Equity Guide.

Capella University prepares students interested in health equity and general public health issues through its online public health programs: