Our health care system is at a critical juncture. Today, gaps in health still persist, persistent and in some cases continue to increasing.

Many are looking upstream on the root causes of health (social determinants) instead of focusing on symptom reduction or illness. It’s time we acknowledge there are conditions influence the overall health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities and that these conditions must be weighted the same as opposed to symptom manifestations observed in the health care encounter.

“To what end?” you might ask. Health Equity. Easy answer. Achieving this is more difficult.

Healthy People 2020 defines health equity as the “attainment of the highest level of health for all people.”

Health equity means everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthier. It recognizes that without access to good jobs, affordable housing, safe parks, and good schools, it is challenging to achieve good health and to thrive. It requires an intentional and sustained effort to increase opportunities for everyone, regardless of age, income, race and ethnicity or zip code, to attain good health and good mental health, especially for populations whose obstacles are greatest.

Why is this important? Because health care does not start in the doctor’s office or health clinic but begins in our homes, in our schools, in our places of worship, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities. Health is a part of our everyday life.

The most successful efforts to date address social and economic variables that affect health and empower communities to take action through community wide efforts and coalitions. Creating a culture of community health.

Our friends at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are leading this work and I invite you to explore their exciting Culture of Health effort.

From small rural towns to large urban cities, communities that place health as a priority and develop strong commitments are creating powerful partnerships to provide everyone, especially populations facing the greatest obstacles, with the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.

People say that it is a monumental challenge to work towards and achieve health equity. That said, it is possible to support the goals of health equity without taking on the huge challenge of broad social change. A 2010 Issue Brief released by Grantmakers in Health outlined ways to address health equity that focus on health status and health services. Such efforts include:

  • improving access to health care;
  • increasing risk reduction and disease prevention;
  • increasing minority participation in the health professions;
  • integrate health literacy, disparities reduction, and quality improvement; and
  • understanding the relationship between health and other sectors (e.g., infrastructure and economic development).

In closing, health equity is crucial for a physically and mentally healthy nation. Historically, policies and practices at the local, state, and national level have contributed to entrenched barriers preventing good health. Therefore, it is policies and practices reforms at the local, state, and national level that need to be dismantled that contribute to these entrenched barriers, creating strong public policy and practices that pave the way to good health.

Bringing about these policy and practice reforms requires active participation of all community sectors —from governmental representatives and policymakers, from educators and business owners, from social service organizations and civic groups, and from adults, children, and families across the lifespan. Beyond that, it takes a shared vision, a shared commitment, trust, and hard work. Lots of really hard work! The good news is that across the country, these changes are happening! Communities are transforming in ways to position better health within everyone’s reach. Healthy communities. Now that’s health equity!