The murder of George Floyd ushered in an era where most organizations recommitted to racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion in the United States. This occurred while the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which revealed gaps in health care access across the country and worse outcomes for Americans from historically marginalized communities, particularly Indigenous and Black Americans as well as those with lower incomes.
Today, the nation is recovering from three years of COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the economy and its medical, public health and social systems. The U.S. is also contending with increasing political polarization that continues to fracture the public’s trust in government and media. These societal challenges are occurring against the backdrop of a shifting climate that is leading to more catastrophic weather events and threatening the availability of essential natural resources and livable communities.
As pandemic shutdowns revealed in bright lines, the health of our nation is a key factor in the resilience and readiness of Americans to meet today’s challenges. Recent events demand an honest assessment of the nation’s capacity to tackle the most pressing issues of today. The U.S. spends nearly twice as much on health care as the average OECD country with spending topping $4.3 trillion in 2021. This translates to U.S. health care costs representing nearly one-fifth of the nation’s overall Gross Domestic Product. Despite this significant investment, Americans’ health outcomes are worse than any other high-income nation.
Studies show young adults are choosing to delay or forego parenthood due to economic and social concerns. And a growing body of research consistently describes significant differences in quality of life and life expectancy by race/ethnicity, income, education, and geography. These issues validate data showing up to 80 percent of health outcomes are tied to social, economic, and environmental factors, leaving a mere 20 percent of health tied to clinical care. Neither the significant investment in health services, the world-class education and training opportunities available for health professionals, nor innovative technology solutions are sufficient for the U.S. to mitigate the continued decline of its population’s health.
The nation needs to identify and implement new approaches to financing the universe of programs and services that influence health. This is necessary to maximize the nation’s investment, support a healthier population, and position the U.S. to remain competitive in the world. Prioritizing population health to support a strong workforce and healthy, safe communities is a critical mission that requires collaboration among stakeholders in the public and private sectors.
“Health equity” is a popular term that means everyone has the opportunity to live their healthiest lives. The practical issue with a popular phrase is that the words themselves merely represent an ideal state, yet there is no succinct terminology to represent the actions needed to achieve the idea. Beyond the words, the road to health equity requires intentional efforts to address the parts of overall health that transcend health services and clinical care.
Companies such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., have committed billions in the short-term to achieve greater racial equity. Similarly, pursuing health equity requires a coalition of stakeholders willing to supplement government funding by bringing additional resources to the table. Actualizing a society that prioritizes health equity demands investment that is proportionate to the annual $320 billion opportunity cost of continued inaction. It also requires willingness to forge a new narrative of health that centers empowering Americans to pursue maximum well-being by improving conditions in their daily lives. Health equity has to become the goal for the nation with all hands on deck to make it our reality.