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The Importance of Considering the Social Determinants of Health

Sophia Bernazzani is a health care journalist. She has a background in healthcare and previously worked in health marketing and advocacy. She's passionate about nutrition and sustainability and studied global public health at the George Washington University.
Negative social determinants of health can impact both an individual’s knowledge about healthcare and resources, and limit access to them. A growing body of research indicated: 
  • Children born to parents who haven’t completed high school are more likely to live in environments that contain barriers to health.
  • Poor individuals who are white are less likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty than poor racial and ethnic minorities.
  • As income decreases, the likelihood of premature death increases.
  • There is a direct link between the likelihood of smoking, shorter life expectancy, and lower income.
  • The environment in which an individual lives may impact future generations.  
  • Stress related to disparities has a direct link to health, and often results from overlapping factors.
  • Growing evidence highlights the negative impact of stress on both children and adults across the lifespan. Commonly referred to as allostatic load, chronic exposure to social and environmental stressors often results in biological “wear-and-tear” that’s places individuals at higher health risk.  
In addition to impacting health, negative social determinants that lead to disparities in health are costly and inhibit the overall quality of care and population health—resulting in added healthcare expenses, loss of productivity, and premature death. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30% of direct medical costs for blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are excess costs and related to health inequities. In addition, the US economy loses an estimated $309 billion annually due to the direct and indirect costs of disparities. 

Building a Better Healthcare System

As our population becomes more diverse and at greater risk for poor health outcomes due to the impact of negative social determinants of health, there is a growing need to coordinate services across the care continuum. Connecting and integrating social supports and services into healthcare provision is essential in order to address the broad range of social determinants that play such an important role in health and well-being. Much of this can be achieved through various methods of increased collaboration among healthcare professionals. Experts recommend:
  • Recognizing and integrating social factors that influence health-related behaviors and health status to develop more effective treatment plans.
  • Assessing and addressing social needs through appropriate referrals to ensure adequate support.
  • Developing health-promotion strategies that reach into communities to improve living and working conditions.
  • Conducting or supporting ongoing research regarding social determinants of health and determine which strategies may be most effective in improving health outcomes.
  • Acting as a resource for local, state, and national policy makers to enable improved health equity for all Americans. 
By doing so, healthcare professionals can create a more holistic awareness of the biological, behavioral and social factors that impact health—working together to build a more equitable healthcare system that enables better health outcomes for all.

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