Social Determinants of Health

An annual checkup with your primary care doctor is a key to staying healthy, but it’s only part of the whole picture. Plenty of other factors that may seem at first glance to have nothing to do with physical well-being — where you live, your level of education, your socioeconomic status — can actually play a big role in how healthy you are. Researchers and doctors call these factors social determinants of health.

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What Are Social Determinants of Health?

Someone who makes it a priority to go to the gym but ignores their nutrition likely won’t be as healthy as someone who also watches their diet. That’s because health isn’t all or nothing. Your habits, environment and other components all have an impact. Some factors, like your genetic makeup, may predispose you to certain conditions and diseases. For instance, a person with a high incidence of breast cancer in their family is more likely to develop the disease themselves.

Social determinants include different facets of your environment, such as how safe your neighborhood is, whether or not you have a job, and what your social support networks are. Some factors, like smoking or drug use, result — at least initially — from individual choices.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, five major factors contribute to overall health outcomes:

  • Biology and genetics. Your sex, age, and genetic makeup all play a role.
  • Individual behavior. Habits such as alcohol use, injecting drugs with needles, having unprotected sex, and smoking cigarettes put your health at risk.
  • Social environment. This includes your gender, your income, and whether or not you face discrimination.
  • Physical environment. Where you live — and how crowded it is — has an impact on your well-being.
  • Health services. People who are able to access affordable, quality health care are more likely to take better care of their health.
Learn more about how social factors can affect your health.

Why Are Social Determinants Important?

Access to health care is important, but studies suggest that individual behavior and social circumstances are even more vital to supporting your overall health and well-being. Health care alone can’t compensate for the fact that someone lives in crowded, unsanitary, or dangerous conditions.

Social and economic factors shape the way people behave, which in turn influences their overall health. For example, children born to parents who haven’t completed high school are more likely to live in areas that don’t offer access to public spaces, such as playgrounds or libraries. They’re also more likely to face safety issues on a daily basis. More doctors are taking these social determinants into account when looking at the big picture of their patients’ lives.

How Can Understanding Social Determinants Improve Health Outcomes?

Addressing the underlying issues surrounding social determinants of health is a path to improving people’s health within a community. Policies that aren’t directly related to health care — like making sure people in at-risk neighborhoods have affordable public transportation, recreation programs, and access to fresh produce and other healthy foods — can still have a large impact.

Health care companies, government programs, and community outreach organizations are also joining together in many cities to help raise awareness around the factors behind common health issues. For instance, UPMC recently partnered with the Pittsburgh-based Community Human Services to help people experiencing homelessness find permanent housing and care coordination. People who gained housing saved an average of more than $6,000 in annual health expenses.

Learn more about what else we’re doing to improve health outcomes in our neighborhoods.

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Social Determinants of Health. World Health Organization. Embracing Social Determinants of Health. Pennsylvania Medical Society. Social Determinants of Health — What are Payers Doing?. HealthEdge. Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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