Why does health equity matter?

Joan Y. Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School

Why do you believe in working toward health equity?

Health equity is really about justice. To me, it’s at the core of what we are supposed to be about as health providers. It’s about ensuring that every patient that we see has access not just to quality care, and the best care, but to the care that’s appropriate to them. It’s not distributed in ways that some are left out. Fundamentally, my role as a clinician is to make sure that my patient has what he or she needs to be the healthiest that they can be. But my patient could be anybody. It’s not based on class or other factors. My patient could be anybody. And that equity is about making sure that everyone has that access, that everyone can be healthy.

Why does everyone deserve access to good health care?

It’s interesting when people start to think of who should and who should not have access to health care, and oftentimes when people engage in that conversation they forget the privilege that they bring to that situation. They forget that they are privileged to have access to a job, or access to insurance, or access to providers who are not going to look at them differently or treat them differently. It’s interesting to me because when their social situation changes, all of a sudden they’re enlightened to think, “Oh my goodness; this isn’t fair; this isn’t right,” and they start to understand that privilege allows you to put a blinder on, so you don’t see the other person’s situation. There’s a saying, “there but for the grace of God go I” — that we could all be in that situation at any point in time.

The other part for me that’s important is the understanding that when we leave people out, we are worse off. We’re worse off as a community, and we’re worse off as a society. What we need is the best of everyone to be able to contribute to the richness of what makes us who we are — as a nation, as an organization, as a community. You can’t have that unless all people have access to good care.

Why is it important to work with others to address health disparities?

When addressing issues of equity and justice, when we think about health disparities, and diversity, these are daunting problems, these are not new problems. And one person alone can’t take on that challenge. That doesn’t mean that one person shouldn’t try to do something where they are, but it’s the collective that can make change. It’s when individuals — the “I’s” — come together to form the “we” that you have the power to make a difference. No one should ever feel this burden of “I have to do it by myself,” but understand that together we can make a difference. Together, we can move more toward equity. Together, we can move more toward social justice.