The Role You Can Play in Addressing Global Health Inequalities

Industry Advice Government & Civic Engagement Healthcare

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), many social forces beyond healthcare services contribute to a person’s overall health. These forces include education, income, employment, gender, and ethnicity—and wide disparities among social groups contribute to numerous global health inequalities.

These inequalities have measurable economic costs that impact individual families as well as national economies. Health care costs go up, and wages go down. With fewer people healthy enough to work, tax revenue decreases, leaving governments with less to spend on public services. Economic development slows down, and inequality persists.

Earning a master’s degree in public health can prepare you to address global health inequalities, whether as a public health professional or as a nonprofit, government agency, or business leader. Studying the practice of public health, examining the policies that shape the field, and specializing in subjects including law, epidemiology, and community health, will help you understand what it will take to reduce global health inequalities.


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Common Global Health Inequalities

WHO has identified several critical global health inequalities, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Early childhood mortality caused by preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and pneumonia
  • Maternal mortality, particularly in developing countries
  • Premature death or disability from non-communicable diseases such as high cholesterol, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes

Additional inequalities include exposure to known pollutants, a lack of access to clean water, violence, poor supplies of fresh foods and vegetables in regions referred to as “food deserts”, and limited open space for exercise and recreation. Together, these are often referred to as social determinants of health, reflecting the fact that they can impact personal and community health more than genetic makeup and access to clinical healthcare services.

Global health inequalities are often depicted as differences among countries, or groups of countries—Sub-Saharan Africa versus Western Europe, for example. However, health inequalities are also common within individual countries, states, and even cities. In Boston, for example, the average life expectancy is 59 years in Roxbury, a neighborhood with higher crime rates and lower levels of household education and income than the national average. In Back Bay, one of Boston’s wealthiest neighborhoods that sits mere miles away, the average life expectancy is 92—a whopping 33 year’s difference.  

Careers That Address Global Health Inequalities

Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences with a joint appointment in Northeastern’s School of Law and Bouve College of Health Sciences, says that there are a number of career paths for students seeking an opportunity to address global health inequalities.

  • Health policy emphasizes educating those who both create and execute public health policy, including local hospitals, nonprofit organizations, state and federal legislatures, and advocacy groups. The goal of roles in this field is to assess the health inequalities within a community and plan a multidisciplinary approach to reducing those inequalities.
  • Healthcare management professionals ensure that the administration, as well as the delivery of healthcare services, is done in an equitable way. This work can occur in the public sector, through agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, or through private-sector organizations such as hospitals, insurance companies, or pharmaceutical companies.
  • Public safety advocacy professionals work with law enforcement to ensure that new government policies enacted to address global health inequalities become common practice for everyday law enforcement. These policies include responding to the opioid crisis, preventing the spread of HIV, removing the stigma of homelessness, and serving citizens with mental illnesses.

“If you design and try to affect a policy, how does it get translated to police training, to law enforcement on the ground?” Beletsky asks. “If you have a policy you’re trying to advance, it’s like a tree that falls in the forest—if no one hears it, it doesn’t make a sound.”

How a Master’s Degree in Public Health Can Help You Effect Change

Earning a master’s degree in public health will build your knowledge of the policies that impact the practice of public health in clinical and non-clinical settings. Specific skills will vary depending on the career you choose, but you can generally expect to learn how to do the following:

  • Build trust with constituents who want to improve individual or community health.
  • Design and implement health education programs for populations impacted by specific global health inequalities.
  • Speak publicly to an audience that will include constituents, community and business leaders, and elected officials.
  • Manage healthcare professionals and office staff working both onsite and in the field.
  • Study patterns of disease or injury in order to identify public health issues and develop strategies to combat the health inequalities causing them.
  • Respond to shifting priorities, especially during turnover in political administration.

In addition, a master’s program will show you how to apply the expertise you already have to solve public health problems. This experience can come from undergraduate education, previous jobs, or life experiences.

For example, Beletsky helped a former student, who had been a physician in Syria, turn a term paper about the reemergence of polio during Syria’s civil war into published research highlighting the importance of supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing medical and humanitarian aid during a crisis.

Making an Impact Close To Home

The idea that one should focus solely on international issues in faraway developing countries in order to address global health inequalities can be seen as a colonialist way of thinking, Beletsky says. In other words: Graduates do not have to travel far to impact health. “A lot of people take that global lens and apply it to local challenges,” he says.

The Boston area’s concentration of academic medical centers provides ample opportunity for graduates with a master’s in public health to improve access to care and reduce health disparities, Beletsky says. Graduates can work with patients who have a specific disease (or set of diseases), live or work in a certain neighborhood, or even attend events at a particular community center.

Working in Boston, or other major global cities, also offers the chance to pursue a career in urban health. For these types of jobs, it’s essential to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders, including state and local health agencies, hospitals, housing authorities, police departments, and community organizations.  

Finally, Boston provides what Beletsky described as a “rich ecosystem” of international NGOs working to improve global health. These groups include Partners in Health, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Clinton Health Action Initiative and focus on initiatives such as training public health workers, providing vaccines, and treating communicable diseases.

Learn more about Northeastern’s graduate programsincluding new dual master’s degree programs in public health and exercise science as well as public health and health informatics.


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