The Impact of Social Determinants of Health on Health Equity and Their Root Causes

April 01, 2021

What Is Health Equity and Why Is It Important?

Health equity can be defined as the attainment of the highest level of health for all people. This means that all people have the opportunity to attain their full health potential and are not disadvantaged due to their social position or other socioeconomic circumstance. Health inequities, on the other hand, are unfair and avoidable differences in health status that result from unjust policies, discriminatory social norms that exclude certain groups of people, and inequitable distribution of money, power, and resources that lead to poorer socioeconomic conditions.

Achieving health equity requires valuing everyone equally with focused and ongoing efforts to address avoidable inequalities, historical and contemporary injustices and racism, and health care disparities. This will often require giving special attention to the needs of those at greatest risk of poor health based on their sociodemographic and socioeconomic conditions as opposed to treating everyone the same. Achieving health equity will also require focusing not just on ensuring equitable access to health care but also improving socioeconomic well-being and enhancing community development to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to live their healthiest lives.

What Are the Social Determinants of Health and How Do They Impact Health Equity?

Health is influenced by many factors, ranging from genetics, individual behaviors, physical environment, medical care, and socioeconomic factors. Over the past few decades, research has demonstrated the significant impact that non-medical socioeconomic factors (also known as the “social determinants of health”) have on an individual’s health as upstream “root causes” that influence an individual’s ability to make healthy choices, access quality medical care, and live healthy lives.

The social determinants of health are the socioeconomic conditions in which we live, learn, work, play, and age, and include the financial, social, familial, and educational aspects of a person’s life as well as the physical environment in which the person lives. Social determinants of health are shaped by cultural values (including racist and other discriminatory beliefs), policies, and the resulting distribution of money, power, and resources that then shape the socioeconomic living conditions of communities and the conditions of daily life for individuals. They can include inadequate access to nutritious food, lack of affordable housing, lack of convenient and efficient transportation options, limited opportunities for quality education and meaningful employment, and limited broadband access, among others.

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