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Toward Health Equity and Social Justice

As a nurse in a hospital on New York’s Upper East Side, Lisa M. Lewis, PhD, RN, found a distinct difference in health outcomes among her patients. From this neighborhood of disparate financial means, Dr. Lewis saw poor patients making recurring visits for acute, uncontrolled asthma, hypertension, and other chronic disorders. The more affluent patients remained healthy and did not need to return.

“I didn’t have a name for what this was, but I knew what I saw,” said Dr. Lewis, now an assistant professor at Penn Nursing. “These individuals lived in the same two-mile radius, but their health outcomes were very different. I started asking, ‘What’s going on and how can we change it?’”

Dr. Lewis had encountered clear evidence of health disparities and, like many Penn Nursing faculty, has dedicated her career to evening the tipped scales of American healthcare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health disparities as “differences in health outcomes between groups that reflect social inequalities.” 

Health disparities account for higher death rates, earlier disease onset, and greater severity of disease, stemming from differences in demographics such as race, age, and geography. In 2009, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., noted that the economy loses nearly $400 billion annually because of health disparities. 

Long dedicated to closing healthcare gaps, Penn Nursing is committed to health equity and social justice as a central part of the School’s mission. More than half the faculty is focused on research in these areas, and Penn Nursing has the leading Center for Health Equity Research in the country.

“Deeply embedded in our mission is to make societal impact, and deeply embedded in our society are health disparities that require the attention of nurses,” said dean Afaf l. Meleis. “In a health equity and social justice model, everyone would have the same access to healthcare services, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or any other difference. Attaining this critical element of fairness is part and parcel of our research, teaching, and practice.”