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Health Disparities

What are social determinants of health?

The World Health Organization defines social determinants of health as, “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, including the health system. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels, which are themselves influenced by policy choices.” Social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health disparities.

Learn how societies are structured like ladders and how that affects our health

What social determinants affect our health?

black/african american couple in hospital room

Some of the issues that influence our health include:

  • Income. People with low income are more likely to avoid healthcare because of the cost of healthcare services and health insurance. They are also more likely to have risk factors related to tobacco use, physical inactivity, obesity, and poor diet.
  • Physical environment. Physical environment affects the places we live, work and play. For example, living or working in low-income or industrial areas may affect our housing, neighborhoods, or workplaces. For example:
    • Housing in low-income areas may be substandard. This means that housing does not meet minimum plumbing, electrical, or structural health and safety requirements.
    • Neighborhoods in low-income areas may not have many recreation centers, community centers, parks, bike paths, or safe outdoor areas. This may affect the amount of physical activity people in these areas get. Access to healthy food choices may also be a problem because there are a higher percentage of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and fewer grocery stores.
    • Workplaces may be unhealthy by exposing workers to toxins or pollutants or industrial accidents.
  • Racial discrimination. Racial discrimination affects mental health and stress levels, which over time, leads to high blood pressure and heart disease. Quality of healthcare also may be lower for racial and ethnic minorities because of discrimination, miscommunication, and assumptions made by healthcare providers. Due to historical trauma related to medical experiments, there may also be mistrust of the healthcare system.
  • Education and health literacy. Education affects a person’s awareness of healthy behaviors. Those with lower education levels may be less likely to seek out health screening services and medical care when needed.
  • Employment. Work may affect health if people are exposed to stress, unsafe chemicals, toxins, or industrials accidents.
  • Social support networks. Supportive social networks of family, friends, co-workers and neighbors help us feel more secure and more able to deal with daily stress. This improves health outcomes. Situations that are perceived as threatening, frightening or stressful may have long-term health effects.

video graphicUnnatural Causes…is inequality making us sick?

Watch video clips from the documentary series, Unnatural Causes.

  • Being Poor in Louisville
    Mary Turner’s choices and struggles as she keeps her three teenagers and disabled husband fed and housed.
  • Neighborhood Fights Against Toxic Emissions
    A neighborhood fights to contain toxic chemicals that have made community members sick.
  • Arriving Healthy
    New immigrants arriving in the U.S. tend to better health than the average American, but become unhealthy the longer they live in the U.S.
  • How Racism Impacts Pregnancy Outcomes
    Infant mortality for African American women with a college education is three times higher than for White women with the same level of education.

More Videos

So far in this module we have looked at broad social issues and how they affect the health of people in our society. Now let’s look at barriers to healthcare: situations that make it difficult for individuals to get healthcare. >>>

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