In the pursuit of a just and equitable society, it is crucial to recognize that the foundations of health, well-being, and success are laid in the early years of life. The National Academy of Medicine’s recent consensus study on the causes and consequences of the opportunity gap for young children from birth to age eight sheds light on the profound implications of unequal access to resources and opportunities 1. This is a brief discussion on how addressing the opportunity gap can impact health professions education curricula and contribute to advancing health equity.

Understanding the Opportunity Gap

The phrase “achievement gap” is commonly used in education-related conversations, media reports, scholarship, and teacher training materials. In recent years, many organizations  have shifted to the term “opportunity gap”. “Opportunity gap” refers to the fact that the arbitrary circumstances in which people are born—such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code, and socioeconomic status—determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential. The “opportunity gap” is the way that uncontrollable life factors like race, language, economic, and family situations can contribute to lower rates of success in educational achievement, career prospects, and other life aspirations. “Opportunity gap” draws attention to the conditions and obstacles that young students face throughout their educational careers. It therefore accurately places responsibility on an inequitable system that is not providing the opportunities for all kids to thrive and succeed.2, 3

The Causes and Consequences

The causes of the opportunity gap are deeply rooted in historical policies that intentionally segregated and limited access to resources for certain populations. As a result, many young children in the United States face challenging conditions, including poverty, food insecurity, exposure to violence, and inadequate access to essential services such as healthcare and quality education. These conditions have profound and compounding effects on academic, health, and economic outcomes not just for individuals but across generations.

In conclusion, changes in language and shifting terminology are not a panacea for addressing the pervasive inequities faced by nursing and medical students in pediatric healthcare. However, they play a crucial role in promoting a solutions-oriented approach that can contribute to systemic reform. Words have meaning, and the language used in healthcare can either reinforce disparities or empower communities to demand more equitable care. Health professions students can be catalysts for policy change. By understanding the root causes of the opportunity gap and its impact on health outcomes, students can advocate for policies that promote equity in healthcare access and quality.


The National Academy of Medicine’s consensus study highlights the urgency of addressing the opportunity gap for young children. By understanding the causes and consequences of this gap, health professions education can evolve to produce more culturally competent, empathetic, and socially conscious healthcare professionals.

Advancing health equity in student learners requires a multi-faceted approach that includes curriculum changes, policy advocacy, community engagement, and a commitment to ongoing learning and research. By preparing the next generation of healthcare professionals to recognize and address the opportunity gap, we can take significant steps towards a healthier and more equitable society for all. It is not just a matter of education; it is a moral imperative and a societal obligation to bridge the opportunity gap and ensure that every child has the chance to thrive.

-Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, Ph.D., NNP, FAAN

Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, Ph.D., NNP, FAAN, is a dedicated neonatal nurse practitioner, researcher, and educator. Currently holding the position of professor of nursing and senior associate dean for faculty affairs, Dr. Darcy-Mahoney is actively pushing the boundaries of research in infant health and developmental outcomes for high-risk infants.

Twitter: @adarcymahoney


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Closing the Opportunity Gap for Young Children. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  2. Opportunity Gap. Close the Gap Foundation.
  3. Mooney, T. (2018, May 11). Why We Say “Opportunity Gap” Instead of “Achievement Gap”. Teach for America.

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