Equity vs Equality: Understanding the Difference in Health Communications

GUEST BLOGGER: Julie Potyraj

In any type of communication, choosing the right words makes a big difference—and this is especially true when it comes to health. Unfortunately, some terms are often interchanged that don’t have the same meaning. That’s why MPH@GW, the online MPH program from The Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University , worked with an illustrator to visualize commonly confused terms in public health. Two of these, equity and equality, are particularly important in health communications. Here we’ll examine why that’s the case.

Defining the Difference

In the context of education, The Education Trust says that “making sure all students have equal access to resources is an important goal. All students should have the resources necessary for a high-quality education. But the truth remains that some students need more to get there.” This perspective demonstrates that while an equal approach ensures that all parties receive the same resources—an equitable approach considers which resources most effectively support the unique needs of each party.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), such equity is “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically.” The WHO highlights the fact that health inequities involve more than a lack of equal access to needed health resources, “They also entail a failure to avoid or overcome inequalities that infringe on fairness and human rights norms.”

Why It Matters

Understanding how health equality and health equity are different is essential to ensuring that consumer needs are adequately assessed and met. When issues of equity are addressed, then resources can be directed in the most effective manner to optimize health outcomes. Providing equal resources to all isn’t the answer to reducing the health disparities gap. Instead, the underlying issues and individual needs of underserved and vulnerable populations must be effectively addressed, as well.

As the Boston Public Health Commission notes, “Achieving health equity requires creating fair opportunities for health and eliminating gaps in health outcomes between different social groups. It also requires that public health professionals look for solutions outside of the health care system, such as in the transportation or housing sectors, to improve the opportunities for health in communities.”

Implications for Health Communications

Health communications play a critical role on a variety of fronts—including those which touch consumers, providers, public health advocates and those involved in policy development and implementation. As such, it’s essential that equity and equality be discussed in the correct contexts to help ensure the effective assessment and delivery of appropriate resources. According to the CDC, “Effectively making the case for health equity requires an understanding of the community context and intended audiences, an appropriately framed message that appeals to core values, and increased awareness of existing health inequities among stakeholders.”

Equity and equality not only affect the messages themselves, but also the way they are delivered and received. Issues such as language, literacy, and access to electronic communications impact the meaning and effectiveness of health communications. If communication equality takes priority over communication equity, too many will fall through the gaps—unable to access the information they need the most.


Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MHA@GW and MPH@GW, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is currently an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.

  • Arshya Gurbani

    Thanks again for this great post, Julie! It’s always great to hear and learn from other health communication departments!