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Health inequalities are avoidable, unfair and systematic differences in health between different groups of people. Here we examine the key data on this complex and wide-ranging issue.

What are health inequalities?

Health inequalities are avoidable, unfair and systematic differences in health between different groups of people. Health inequalities are experienced between different groups of people and are often analysed across four main categories: socio-economic factors (for example, income); geography (for example, region); specific characteristics (for example, ethnicity or sexuality); and socially excluded groups (for example, people who are seeking asylum or experiencing homelessness). The effects of inequality are multiplied for those who have more than one type of disadvantage. 

How are they measured?

Health inequalities can be measured by differences in health outcomes among different groups of people. For example, in England life expectancy varies depending on where people live. People living in the most deprived areas have a life expectancy a decade shorter than those living in the least deprived areas (life expectancy is 76 years in Blackpool and 86 years in Kensington). 

Map of England showing life expectancy varies by almost a decade

The deprivation gap

The gap between people living in the most deprived and the least deprived areas is even wider when it comes to healthy life expectancy, which is a measure of how much time people spend in good health over the course of their lives. Those in the most deprived areas can expect to live more than18 fewer healthy years than those in the least deprived areas.

Bar graphs showing Healthy life expectancy is more than 18 years lower for the most deprived compared to the least deprived

Influence of a wide range of factors

Health inequalities are caused by a wide range of factors. Worse health outcomes occur when people have limited access to health care, experience poorer-quality care, and practise more risky health-related behaviours (for example, smoking). 

These factors are often influenced by wider determinants such as income, housing, environment, transport, education and work. Tackling health inequalities requires an understanding of the complex interaction between all these factors. 

Bar graph showing People in more deprived areas are more likely to take health-related risks (though alcohol consumption is an exception)

The effect of Covid-19

Covid-19 has widened health inequalities in England by disproportionately affecting those already experiencing health inequalities, such as those living in the most deprived areas and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, life expectancy in England fell in 2020 for the first time since 2000. 

The ongoing effects of the pandemic on the economy are likely to impact different parts of the population differently, and therefore to widen health inequalities further. For example, health inequalities can be seen in the waiting list for non-urgent health care, where those living in more deprived areas are more likely to wait longer for treatment. 

Bar graph showing Death rates from Covid-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double rates in the least deprived areas

Further reading

Health inequalities is a complex and wide-ranging issue. To learn more about it, read:

  • Three people climbing a ladder

    What are health inequalities?

    This explainer provides an overview of how health inequalities are experienced in England’s population.

  • Tackling health inequalities on NHS waiting lists

    Our report looks at how identifying health inequalities and adopting an inclusive approach to NHS waiting lists has been used to reduce the backlog after the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • What is happening to life expectancy in England?

    This article examines trends in life expectancy at birth up to 2022, the impact of Covid-19 on life expectancy, gender differences and inequalities in life expectancy, causes of the chan...

  • Equity and endurance: how can we tackle health inequalities this time?

    There have been many attempts to tackle health inequalities over the past three decades, but none has resulted in the lasting change that is needed. This long read draws out what can be ...