It is well known that social, cultural and economic factors cause substantial inequalities in health. Should we strive to achieve a more even share of good health, beyond improving the average health status of the population? We examine four arguments for the reduction of health inequalities.
1 Inequalities are unfair.
Inequalities in health are undesirable to the extent that they are unfair, or unjust. Distinguishing between health inequalities and health inequities can be contentious. Our view is that inequalities become “unfair” when poor health is itself the consequence of an unjust distribution of the underlying social determinants of health (for example, unequal opportunities in education or employment).
2 Inequalities affect everyone.
Conditions that lead to marked health disparities are detrimental to all members of society. Some types of health inequalities have obvious spillover effects on the rest of society, for example, the spread of infectious diseases, the consequences of alcohol and drug misuse, or the occurrence of violence and crime.
3 Inequalities are avoidable.
Disparities in health are avoidable to the extent that they stem from identifiable policy options exercised by governments, such as tax policy, regulation of business and labour, welfare benefits and health care funding. It follows that health inequalities are, in principle, amenable to policy interventions. A government that cares about improving the health of the population ought therefore to incorporate considerations of the health impact of alternative options in its policy setting process.
3 Interventions to reduce health inequalities are cost effective.
Public health programmes that reduce health inequalities can also be cost effective. The case can be made to give priority to such programmes (for example, improving access to cervical cancer screening in low income women) on efficiency grounds. On the other hand, few programmes designed to reduce health inequalities have been formally evaluated using cost effectiveness analysis.
We conclude that fairness is likely to be the most influential argument in favour of acting to reduce disparities in health, but the concept of equity is contested and susceptible to different interpretations. There is persuasive evidence for some outcomes that reducing inequalities will diminish “spill over” effects on the health of society at large. In principle, you would expect that differences in health status that are not biologically determined are avoidable. However, the mechanisms giving rise to inequalities are still imperfectly understood, and evidence remains to be gathered on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce such inequalities.
- health inequalities
- social determinants of health
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Funding: this work was funded by the National Health Committee of New Zealand, and appeared in an earlier form as a special report to the Committee (Woodward A, Kawachi I. Why should we reduce inequalities? National Health Committee: Health Determinants Programme Background Paper 2. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Health 1998).
Conflicts of interest: none.