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What are ‘social determinants of health’?

Flickr/Alamosbasement

Put simply, social determinants of health (SDoH) are the “causes behind the causes”. The upstream social and economic factors that largely but insidiously dictate the health - and disease - of individuals and populations. The notion recognises that the conditions in which we live, work, learn and play all heavily influence the health we can achieve.

SDoH include access to education, transport, quality housing, employment opportunities and freedom from discrimination. The World Health Organization explains that these social and economic conditions, and their effects on people’s lives, determine our risk of illness; the actions we can take to prevent ourselves becoming ill; and our ability to treat illness when it occurs.

Think of social determinants as the root-causes of health and disease.

Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring.

In the same way, addressing SDoH works on the causes of the loss in health in our society. We can continue to only treat the rising burden of diabetes and heart disease (which of course is still an important social investment), or we can also address issues such as the lack of education around prevention, rising mental health burden caused by economic and social hardships and tackle unaffordable housing and health care.

Which will in turn, lead to greater community health.

Still confused? Watch this fantastic clip from Canada that explains all…

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For more on global health, explore Translational Global Health, from Alessandro and PLOS.