Through my education at Brandeis as a Health: Science, Society, and Policy major, one topic that I have learned quite a lot about is the social determinants of health. Social determinants of health are the elements present in our society and environments that contribute to someone’s health. They are not controlled by individual behavior, and are largely out of the control of any single person. Social determinants of health can range from somebody’s income, to their race, or to what zip code they live in.
In real-world situations, they may manifest in several ways. A family without much money may not be able to afford healthy foods. Someone living in a poorer neighborhood may not have access to green space and parks. A Black person living in America has to deal with the daily stresses of racism. All of these social factors can have a tremendous impact on our health that is largely out of our personal control. The concept and impact of social determinants of health have been an integral part of many of my HSSP courses, and they have informed my thinking and reasoning in other courses and in the ways that I see the world.
The idea of social determinants of health is an important lens for viewing the world of public health because it is very beneficial to understand that such a large component of our health is not a matter of personal choice. While we can make individual decisions that impact our well-being, many of the public health problems plaguing our society exist outside of this context. In order to solve our public health crises, we must fix the structural societal problems that contribute to them.
The concept of social determinants of health informs the health policy advocacy work of my organization, the National Consumers League, in almost everything we do. For example, when advocating for safe, effective, and affordable prescription drugs, there must be an understanding that people need to live in a neighborhood where they can easily stop by their local pharmacy, or even have their drugs delivered. It also involves understanding that rich Americans do not need to worry about affording the drugs that they need like poor and middle class Americans do.
Likewise, when advocating for increased vaccine confidence and uptake, we must understand that people living in certain environments do not hear from trusted medical information sources nearly as much as people who live in other places. There are also people who worry about the cost of a vaccine, whether a direct payment, or the indirect cost of missing work to travel to a faraway vaccination site. To encourage vaccination, we must consider the many social factors that may be contributing to peoples’ hesitancy to get vaccinated.
What I have learned about social determinants of health during my time at Brandeis informs my thinking about every issue in public health and health policy that comes up during my internship, and I never miss a chance to mention to those who I am working with about the importance of considering them. I recently wrote a blog that was published on the National Consumers League’s website about treating gun violence as a public health crisis. While writing this blog, I had the concept of social determinants of health at the front of my mind. Everyone dealing with public health issues would be wise to take a greater consideration of social determinants of health.