Health inequalities

What are health inequalities?

Health inequalities are preventable and unjust differences in health status experienced by certain population groups. People in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to experience chronic ill-health and die earlier than those who are more advantaged. Health inequalities are not only apparent between people of different socio-economic groups – they exist between different genders and different ethnic groups1.

Health inequalities are often observed along a social gradient. This means that the more favourable your social circumstances such as income or education, the better your chance of enjoying good health and a longer life. While there is a significant gap between the wealthy and the poor, the relationship between social circumstances in health is in fact a graded one.

health inequalities

Source of data 'Inequalities in Mortality 1989-1998'

What causes health inequalities?

"Inequalities in health arise because of inequalities in society – in the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age"    

Sir Michael Marmot, 2010

The causes of health inequality are complex but they do not arise by chance.  The social, economic and environmental conditions in which we live strongly influence health. These conditions are known as the social determinants of health, and are largely the results of public policy.


Social Determinants of Health
diagram of social determinants of health

Cross sectoral work on the social determinants of health

IPH has set out cross sectoral work on the social determinants of health as a key area of action within it's Corporate Plan 2010-2013. Working closely with others, IPH aims to create greater awareness among the health sector, government agencies and the public of the importance of social determinants of health. This is in line with broad public health approach advocated in Northern Ireland's Investing for Health strategy and the Republic of Ireland's Strategy Quality and Fairness.

How can I learn more about health inequalities and social determinants?

Recommended Reading:


 Links to other health inequality pages on the IPH website

1 No distinction is made between health inequalities and health inequities in this definition. Other sources use the term health inequities to refer to differences that are avoidable and unjust and health inequalities to refer to differences that are not.