Understanding the Social Determinants of Health

Written By Alla Levin
June 24, 2021

Understanding the Social Determinants of Health

A community may have good hospitals with well-trained staff and state-of-the-art medical equipment. But that does not always translate to health equity or equality. Beyond the clinical environment, disparities in the social determinants of health make it more difficult for some society members to receive high-quality care or live healthily. Multiple underlying factors, including environmental and socioeconomic, can restrict an individual’s ability to incorporate good health practices and access healthcare.

Healthcare Access and Equality

Many people among vulnerable populations do not have proper, consistent access to healthcare tools. Consequently, they have a smaller chance of attaining optimal health. With many being uninsured or underinsured, they cannot afford basic medical needs like expensive drugs or procedures.

The lack of access to healthcare resources and information compounds this problem. It means some people may not have the necessary education to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercise and a proper diet. Even those with sufficient health insurance may not always get proper care if their neighborhoods have unreliable transportation. This barrier often leads to missing a doctor’s appointment, skipping medication, or not receiving emergency care on time.

Education Access and QualitySocial Determinants of Health

Scholars believe that a good education can empower an individual to adopt healthy habits throughout their life. In contrast, many uneducated people lack the socioeconomic empowerment needed to access high-quality care. Without a good education, they are often unable to secure well-paying jobs.

This can cause long-term social and financial difficulties, resulting in health-harming mental complications, including stress. Those with better education, such as college education, tend to have higher incomes and access to more healthcare resources like health insurance and medical services. They usually enjoy stronger social support, financial stability, high self-esteem, and other perks that absorb stress.

Economic Factors

Just like education, economic power increases an individual’s access to healthcare and resources. Poverty does the opposite by limiting people’s access to healthy living necessities. Low-income families or individuals may not afford basic medical services or a healthy, balanced diet every day.

Steady employment is one way to economically empower these disadvantaged members of society, enabling them to afford a healthy lifestyle. With stable income comes increased access to healthcare, better housing, and healthier meals. Also, economically stable parents have more resources to educate their children for financial empowerment and better health in the future.

Community and Social

Too much social isolation can have far-reaching health ramifications. So can living in a challenging community. For example, individual discrimination may harm the victim’s mental wellbeing. On an institutional level, it can limit access to health or social resources.

Those who cannot afford the necessities of life often suffer more physically and mentally without proper social or community support. While no community is 100 percent trouble-free, positive relationships and interactions at home, work, or neighborhood can help people cope better and live happier lives.

Neighborhood and Physical Environment

A neighborhood’s characteristics or features, such as recreational areas and safety, directly and indirectly affect public health. If people do not feel safe where they live, they might avoid health-enhancing outdoor activities like jogging or biking.

They may even live in constant fear/anxiety and minimize interactions with their neighbors. Generally, violent crime-prone areas have a higher injury, disability, premature death rates, major health issues. Communities without recreational spaces, like parks or community centers, have been associated with a lower well-being level. Occasionally, people need to go to these areas to blow off steam, exercise, or connect with nature and improve their mental health.


When people cannot afford decent meals every day, their health suffers. This issue is more prevalent in socially disadvantaged communities where the cost comes before preference when choosing food to eat. Budget constraints mean less healthy meal options for the affected families.

It can lead to a broad range of health issues, including starvation or malnutrition, which exposes children to the risk of illness and premature death. Starving adults or those not getting enough nutrition are not safe either. They are usually physically weak and more vulnerable to chronic complications like heart disease over the long term. High sugar and processed foods also tend to be the cheapest options, so many people of low socioeconomic status gravitate toward those foods, increasing their risk for type II diabetes and obesity.

Addressing Health Inequality

Despite today’s overall healthcare improvements, numerous socioeconomic factors continue impeding access to medical services and resources in disadvantaged communities. People without a good education or stable income bear the brunt of the glaring inequalities. Overcoming the social, financial, or environmental challenges can help more people access and afford routine medical care and live healthier lifestyles.

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