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Health Equity and the Social Determinants of Health Are NOT Synonyms


This article first appeared in the blog, Ellen’s Interprofessional Insights, and is published with explicit permission of the author.


I delayed writing this blog to not compete with a recently published article in CMSA Today on The Social Determinants of Health: Case Management’s Next Mandate. It’s a quick 5-minute read if you haven’t gotten to it yet. However, that additional week gave me time to review another important and slightly longer read, the National of Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report, Federal Policy to Advance Racial, Ethnic, and Tribal Health Equity

Report Overview and Missteps

This well-intended report from the National Academies highlights the mandate for macro-level oversight of three disparity domains, as reflected in the title. There was affirmation how the social determinants of health and mental health (SDoH and MH) and the policies that shape them contribute to hindering and advancing health equity. Valuable recommendations included:

  • Creating a permanent federal body responsible for improving racial, ethnic, and tribal equity across the federal government
  • Development by Congress of a score card to assess the impact on health equity of all proposed federal legislation in the future, and
  • Having Federal agencies conduct an equity audit of their current policies.
  • Collecting more accurate and complete population data for minoritized communities; those social (racial) groups that are marginalized or persecuted due to systemic oppression.
  • Improving coordination among federal agencies
  • Supporting better inclusion of community input, and
  • Increasing federal support and access for state and local programs.

These recommendations were sound, as the communities highlighted all face considerable obstacles in accessing optimal physical and behavioral health. Yet, the report suffers from two common flaws that I often identify when reviewing published works on this topic:

  1. Aligning health equity attainment only with the SDoH and MH, and
  2. Viewing only racial and ethnic populations in the context of the discussion.

Health Equity and the SDoH Are Not Synonyms

Few things annoy me more than short-sighted views of the healthcare horizon in the context of our health equity challenge. I get especially irritated when health disparities are attributed to the SDoH alone. For example, I often hear presenters discuss high mortality rates for minoritized populations and attribute these poor outcomes to poverty and low socioeconomic status, unemployment, and lesser education. Maternal mortality for Black Women is >2.6 X that of White Women, though this particular data point was independent of income, education, or other elements commonly associated with health disparities.

These faulty views impede accurate comprehension of the full scope of factors obstructing health equity, including systemic and structural racism, implicit and explicit biases, and the political determinants of health (PDoH). This erroneous perspective perpetuates generations of historical, experiential, and other event traumas endured by these populations. Patients continue to be blamed for their poor health outcomes rather than the system (and its providers) that created the chasms in care to begin with.

Inadequate data to reflect minoritized populations has led to a risk-management ripple-effect. Faulty algorithms have been identified across clinical decision-making and interviewing models leading to inaccurate risk assessment, treatment recommendations, and medication dosages. Poor operational and fiscal outcomes intersect with quality and safety concerns, especially when the data used does not accurately reflect the clinical needs of the population.

Health Equity Includes More than Race and Ethnicity

Achieving health equity involves taking dedicated action to improve the access, quality, and experience of healthcare for all individuals, populations, and communities. There is no doubt that race and ethnicity are key constructs for research attention and action, with abysmal morbidity and mortality rates. The National Academies report notes:

  • Life expectancy for non-Hispanic Whites at 78.9 years of age compared to 75.3 for Blacks, and 73.1 for the American Indian and Alaska Native populations.

However, other marginalized populations face equally worrisome barriers to equitable care access and treatment. Of equal importance are gender orientation, age, and individuals with physical, cognitive, developmental, and mental health disabilities, to name a few areas. These populations are too often left out of health equity discussions:

Sexual and gender minority (SGM) populations have a higher incidence than non-SGM of developing chronic diseases (e.g., asthma, arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)), and more frequently deal with barriers to care from discrimination, let alone cost.

  • People living with disabilities (PLWD) have poorer health than the general population and are at a greater risk of injury and of developing non-communicable chronic diseases and age-related health conditions at earlier ages.
  • Rampant gender disparities present in pain management, especially for those who identify as women. They experience “gendered treatment” across healthcare settings and with symptoms devalued or dismissed by their healthcare providers. This study’s results were also independent of socioeconomic status, education, or other health-related social needs.

The President of the National Academy of Medicine, Dr. Victor J. Dzau is correct that “Addressing the nation’s racial and ethnic health disparities is an imperative for the medical community.”; I would also add the priority for behavioral health given the current societal demand; after all, there is no health without mental health and visa-versa. However, efforts that limit health equity strategies to racial and ethnic disparities are short-sighted. Successful diversity, equity, and inclusion imperatives require the voice of every societal stakeholder across the entire cultural schema.

Health Equity Actions Advance

Attaining health equity involves dedicated action to improve the access, quality, and experience of healthcare overall. This translates to intentional work by everyone, from those in data analysis, and learning and development, to persons specializing in process improvement and data measurement. This means:

  1. Developing quality metrics for health plans, health systems, and other entities that focus on more than reactive, short-term return on investment metrics, such as readmissions, patient engagement, and patient satisfaction. These antiquated data points only blame patients for poor outcomes through use of language such as “non-compliant”, rather than put accountability for change in the hands of providers.
  2. Ensuring quality improvement efforts reduce unnecessary care utilization (e.g., ED visits, hospitalization), while simultaneously increasing access to preventative and primary care, behavioral health, and specialty care; this means adding concordant providers and approaches to care, which has been addressed in prior blog posts.
  3. Shift case management back to a proactive vs. reactive model; discharge planning is not the sole priority. Instead, case management competencies must highlight swift assessment of patients and their support systems, care coordination, interprofessional collaboration, effective communication, and outcomes management, while heeding professional ethical and compliance standards.
  4. Educate policy makers on inclusive health equity frameworks such as by Peterson et al. (2020). This robust framework accounts for equity and justice at the core of health outcomes, multiple and interacting spheres of influence, and a historical and life-course perspective (e.g., historical, experiential, developmental traumas).
  5. Reinforce a sense of belongingness by everyone, especially persons from underserved communities. All patients and their families should feel seen, heard, and safe in the healthcare sector. This outcome can be measured by patient reported outcomes measures (PROMs), employee satisfaction and engagement surveys, and methods that involve analysis of these measures through demographics of race, ethnicity, and gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and developmental disabilities, and socioeconomic status.

The Call to Action

“Our industry achieves the highest level of health for all persons, only when all voices are included. Communities that commit to health equity make all persons feel valued, and do so via concerted and ongoing attention. It is only through this all-encompassing effort that avoidable inequities are identified and addressed, historical and contemporary injustices are eliminated, and healthcare disparities are mitigated.” (Fink-Samnick & Garrett, 2023).

Successful health equity strategies must be inclusive, and focus on all marginalized and minoritized persons and their communities. Any lesser view will continue to yield a faulty health equity equation. All populations deserve better.


Bio: Dr. Ellen Fink-Samnick is an award-winning industry entrepreneur whose focus is on interprofessional ethics, wholistic health equity quality, trauma-informed leadership, and competency-based case management. She is a content-developer, professional speaker, author, and educator with academic appointments at Cummings Graduate Institute of Behavioral Health Studies, George Mason University, and the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. Her latest book isThe Ethical Case Manager: Tools and Tactics, which is available on Amazon. Ellen serves in national leadership and consultant roles across the industry.

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