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date: 23 February 2019

Health Equity Metrics

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health. Please check back later for the full article.

There is one common health objective by all nations, as stated in the constitution of the World Health Organization of 1947: the progress toward the best feasible level of health for all people. This goal captures the concept of health equity: fair distribution of unequal health. However, 70 years later, this common global objective has never been measured. Most of the available literature focuses on measuring health inequalities, not inequities, and tends to concentrate on comparisons among population subgroups, specific health risks, diseases, or health services, thereby indirectly contributing to the high fragmentation of health policies, actions, and even constituencies and resulting in competition for funds and/or priority.

A method to identify standards for the best feasible levels of health through criteria of healthy, replicable, and sustainable (HRS) models is needed. The avoidable death toll has not improved significantly since the 1970s. Younger age groups (though gradually shifting toward older age groups) and women are most affected. Data analysis of smaller sample units (such as provinces, states, counties, or municipalities) increases the sensitivity of measurement and detects higher levels of health inequity.

Most of the burden of health inequity takes place in countries with levels of income per capita below the average of the HRS countries, which is called the “dignity threshold” (the economic condition threshold necessary to enjoy the best feasible levels of health). Based on this threshold, it is possible to estimate the necessary distribution of the world’s resources compatible with the universal right to health—“the equity curve.” Income above the upper thresholds, and hence wealth accumulation, prevents others from living in conditions of dignity compatible with the universal right to health, is correlated with a carbon footprint above the ethical sustainable threshold, and does not translate into better health nor well-being. The international redistribution of wealth required to enable all nations to have at least an average per capita income above the dignity threshold would be around 8%, much higher than the present, nonbinding, and volatile levels of international cooperation, which currently lack an equity approach.

At subnational levels, the burden of health inequity can be the most sensitive barometer of socioeconomic justice among territories and the population, informing and directing fiscal and territorial equity schemes to enable all people within and between nations to enjoy the universal right to health. HRS models can also inspire lifestyles, political, and economic frameworks that increase efficiency, replicability, and sustainability of ethical well-being without undermining the rights of others in present and future generations.