When we think of equity, or equality, we often think of voting rights, equal opportunities at school and work, and the right to express yourself freely, to name a few. But what about the right to equal healthcare, no matter your socioeconomic status?
As frontline healthcare providers, nurses need to be aware of the inequities in not only access to care but to the differing levels of care available to certain marginalized populations. Gaining awareness of health disparities can better prepare nurses to improve health conditions for their patients and their communities.
Health Disparities and Health Equity
Not all Americans are born into conditions that support their best health. Barriers to quality healthcare lead to health disparities according to the American Public Health Association. For example, some rural populations lack access to necessary medical treatment, including regular wellness visits and preventive care. Other people may have language barriers that prevent them from seeking necessary care or understanding health recommendations. Without this care, no matter the cause, health outcomes for these populations are likely to be worse than for those with easy access to care.
Healthy People 2020 defines health disparity as a particular type of health difference that is linked to a disadvantage. Disadvantages include, but are not limited to, socioeconomic status, geographic location (rural or urban), sexual identity or orientation, ethnicity, race, age and disability.
Dr. Susan Hassmiller, featured in a Nurse.com article, says, "Research has shown that social determinants of health such as education status, access to healthcare, social connectedness and food and housing insecurity can all affect an individual's health and well-being." Making improvements where possible can improve the chances of better health.
Health equity means all people can achieve their optimal health. Identifying disparities and working to change them can help bring about health equity. And nurses are perfectly placed to do just that.
Finding Health Equity
Some factors that contribute to illness and chronic disease, like genetic predisposition and family medical history, cannot be mitigated. Health promotion seeks to put patients in the driver's seat for the things they can control, helping provide access where it might otherwise be limited or non-existent.
Optimizing conditions for patients can help manifest health equity. For example, access to clean, uncontaminated drinking water can prevent illness and promote wellness. Safe shelter impacts the ability to sleep and protect one's health from the elements. Public parks and recreation areas make it easier for communities to engage in outdoor exercise to manage weight and support heart health.
Education is a large component of health equity. Understanding how nutrition and exercise can stave off potential chronic disease benefits the population. Knowing how to select nutritious foods to build healthy bodies and having access to such foods can improve lives. People can also learn about exposure to toxic chemicals and take actions to reduce their risk.
Nurses as Health Equity Advocates
Because nurses are often more accessible than physicians, they are a valuable asset in improving health equity. Nurses understand the benefits of health promotion and disease prevention, and they have the opportunity to educate each patient who crosses their path. They are also at a particular advantage to learn more about disparities in the communities they serve.
Nursing Outlook notes that additional training can improve the ability to provide patient-centered care. Nurses who are familiar with the particular challenges faced by the specific races, ethnicities and socio-economic classes under their care can improve patient outcomes. Learning about cultures in the area may provide insight that can guide treatment and help them gain more patient compliance with treatments and healthy life choices.
The availability of smartphones to people at almost any economic level or location is expanding the possibilities for health equity through technology at an increasing rate. NCBI points out that mobile applications can provide some widely available health management tools to cell phone users. Educating patients about these apps can help improve health equity. Nurses can encourage patients to use mindfulness, fitness and nutrition apps, as well, to start making health changes.
Technology also enables nurses to better connect with patients to assess any disparities and issues. Translation apps and photographs help patients and nurses better understand one another. A photograph of a rash, for instance, can help the nurse make recommendations for treatment or further consultation with a physician.
Coletta Barrett, RN, recommends nurses serve as advocates for policy change to improve health in underserved populations. Because nurses are on the frontlines of patient care, they can provide informed insight into existing health disparities in communities. This information can help shape policies and guide community advocacy.
By cultivating health equity, nurses can shape patient health on individual and community levels. Through greater comprehension of health disparities, better training on cultural health, the use of technology where possible, and advocacy for health equity, nurses can help ensure the end result of better health for all.
Learn more about the University of North Carolina Wilmington's online RN to BSN program.
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