Equity 101 – Environmental public health professionals can take health equity action

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Karen Rideout

This is the final post in a series about the Equity 101 videos from the BC Centre for Disease Control. Each of five videos looks at a different aspect of how health equity relates to environmental public health (EPH) practice. The first post summarizes Videos 1–3, which  explain key concepts and describe health equity in the context of EPH. The second post focuses on building organizational capacity to support health equity actions (Video 4). In this last post, you will be introduced to actions that individual practitioners can take to support health equity, which are described in Video 5.

Health equity means that everyone has a fair opportunity to reach their full health potential without disadvantage caused by their social, economic, or environmental circumstances (see the NCCDH Glossary for more information). What EHOs can do to support health equity is a short video to show what EPH professionals such as environmental health officers (EHOs) and public health inspectors (PHIs) can do to support health equity. As a frontline EHO or PHI, you may feel limited in what you can do if health equity isn’t explicit in your program plan or job description. This video shows some ways to work health equity into your role by examining how you approach your work. It articulates ways to reconcile social action with your mandate to protect public health and ensure compliance with regulations.  

What you already do

You can incorporate health equity thinking and goals into your practice without adding new tasks to your role. In fact, you may already be taking a health equity approach, even if you don’t use that term. Here are some ways to view your role through an equity lens by considering how you do what you do.

  1. Focus on relationships. The trust you build with clients can help you understand their underlying issues and challenges and allow people to feel comfortable talking to you about their barriers. Ask questions. Listen. Pay attention to how people respond to your communication style.
  2. Consider context. You probably already prioritize actions to mitigate high risk infractions or behaviours. Where people face barriers, look for new ways to reach the same outcome.
  3. Find a champion/Be a champion. If you have a colleague or manager interested in health equity, support what they are doing and learn from them. If that person is you, let people know what you are doing or thinking.
  4. Reflect. Think about how what you do might impact health equity now and in the future.

It can help to conceptualize health equity as a “lens” or approach to your role rather than another set of tasks to fit into busy schedules.

What else you can do

There are other things you may be able to do that can further strengthen your skills to address health equity.

  1. Collaborate. Talk to other professionals to find ways to work together. Consider whether you can help vulnerable people access services outside environmental health.
  2. Take note. Simply noting any barriers or issues that you see – even if you can’t do anything about them – and sharing your thoughts with management can help identify needs and gaps in your community.
  3. Keep learning. Take advantage of professional development opportunities about health equity. Related skills such as communication or facilitation are always valuable.
  4. Advocate. Advocacy is included in your discipline-specific public health competencies. Consider ways to advocate for vulnerable clients or for a clearer EPH role to support health equity.  

The BC Centre for Disease Control has a suite of resources for EPH professionals on their Through an Equity Lens page. The Handbook of Health Equity in Environmental Public Health includes information and action-oriented tools for frontline practitioners and decision-makers. EHOs in British Columbia can receive training about how to use bc211 to help refer people to needed services that fall outside the scope of environmental public health practice. (EPH practitioners in other provinces of Canada can visit 211.ca to learn about referral services in your area.)

The first step to becoming an equity-focused EPH practitioner is to apply an “equity lens” to the way you think about what you do – try to see the bigger picture and consider underlying issues that might affect the people you work with.

Learn more

Related NCCEH resources

Watch all five videos to earn 1 PDH credit toward the CIPHI Continuing Professional Competencies program. Log on to the CIPHI Member Service Centre to submit your time.

Author bio:

Dr. Karen Rideout is a food systems and environmental health specialist whose work focuses on the social, cultural, and environmental influences on health. Using her experience in research and policy analysis, she creates practical evidence-based tools and facilitates creativity and collaboration. As principal of Karen Rideout Consulting she facilitates cross-sector engagement with diverse professionals to create healthier built environments, healthier public policies, and healthier food systems.