Fact Sheet: Health Disparities

Health Disparities Defined

Health disparities are caused by a complex interaction of multiple factors including individual, genetic and environmental risk factors (Olden & White, 2005). Pervasive structural inequities and social determinants of health are believed to be the primary cause (OMH, 2011; World Health Organization, 2011).

Health disparities definitions vary (Carter-Pokras & Baquet, 2002), but they all address differences in health status between one population group in comparison to a more advantaged group and most address issues of social justice and equity.

Representative definitions include:

  • Differences in the incidence, prevalence, mortality and burden of diseases and other adverse health conditions that exist among specific populations in the United States (NIH, 2011)
  • Differences in health outcomes that are closely linked with social, economic and environmental disadvantage (Office of Minority Health, 2011)
  • Health inequalities that are considered unnecessary, avoidable and unfair/unjust (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, World Health Organization, 2008)

Health disparities is a term most often used in the United States.

Health Disparity Health Priorities

In 1985, the Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health (the Heckler Report) identified six areas of health concern. They were cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, chemical dependency related to cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, homicides and accidents and infant mortality.

Although there are common areas of health disparities and concerns across groups, morbidity and mortality often varies by individual population groups. For example, HIV/AIDS is experienced disproportionately by the black population. APA's Health Disparities Initiative also focuses on stress, obesity and substance abuse. These conditions are closely associated with a number of chronic diseases, and are disproportionately experienced by and/or have disproportionate consequences on racial/ethnic minority and other health disparity populations.

For more information on how APA is addressing health disparities, please contact us at:

Health Disparities Initiative
American Psychological Association
Public Interest Directorate
750 First Street, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002-4242
Phone: (202) 336-6036