The Social Determinants of Health

People do not approach situations neutrally.  We tend to have our own preconceived beliefs towards life, and those beliefs vary depending onyour life experience.  But if you really want to get a better idea of why people are the way they are, for better or for worse, you should start with the social determinants of health.  These allow us to understand real people, real problems, and real experiences, because appearances rarely measure up to reality.

The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age.  These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies, and political systems (World Health Organization, 2020).  These determinants can be separated into five categories: neighborhood and physical environment, health and health care, social and community context, education, and economic stability.

The key elements of neighborhood and physical environment revolve around access to healthy food, quality housing, exposure to environmental conditions, crime, and violence.  The focus topic has to do with quality housing.  Depending on where one lives, they may be more exposed to a life a crime and it can lead to the normalization of unacceptable behaviors or actions.

For health and health care, concerns revolve around access to different levels of health care and health literacy.  This determinant has to do with approaches to health.  Depending on how health care is delivered, it can make a significant impact when health professionals are able to visit the communities they are serving and can witness the challenges of those people.

Social and community context is also important and includes such things as social cohesion, civic participation, discrimination, and incarceration.  To deal with it, you need to look at the neighborhood fabric, social connectedness, and the criminal justice system.  Depending on if rehabilitation programs are offered or if there are alternative access to resources, a challenging environment can leave people feeling alone and it can lead toward a life of crime.  Once people go to jail, the road back can be long.

Education is the fourth determinant and the key elements of it revolve around early childhood education and development, high school graduation, enrollment in higher education, language, and literacy.  Childcare and quality educations are the main areas that need to be focussed on to understand these elements.  Parents that need to work can be held back if they do not have access to appropriate childcare, and leaving them with strangers can be dangerous for the children.  For children trying to overcome poverty, the only way they can experience success is through education and that is why a quality education is so important.

Finally, the key elements of economic stability revolve around poverty, employment, food insecurity, and housing instability.  The focus topics have to do with economic opportunity, homelessness, and affordable housing.  People that find themselves living in low-income areas are unlikely to have access to nearby employment and transportation accommodations add to financial hardships.  Without affordable housing, people struggling to get there finances in order will end up homeless.

These real-life challenges and stress have an impact on the way people are.  The social determinants of health are interconnected factors that allow us to better understand people for the way they are, but they can also help us identify points of contention.  When we begin to see disparities in health outcomes, these can be attributed to circumstances associated with one’s surroundings.  The immediate surroundings can often be a better predictor of overall health than one’s genetic code or family history.

Understanding where these troubles originate from allows us to work towards achieving the highest level of health for all people, a society that leaves nobody behind.


Government of Canada.  (2020).  Social Determinants of Health and Health Inequalities.  Retrieved from

World Health Organization.  (2020).  Social Determinants of Health.  Retrieved from