Why Healthcare Providers Need to Understand Social Determinants of Health

woman alone at home

It’s simple to think that all diseases and disorders can be easily diagnosed and treated. That’s often what we see on television and in movies. A sick person goes to the doctor and describes his symptoms. The doctor tells him what’s wrong and prescribes a remedy. The patient gets better.

But real life is rarely so cut and dry.

The truth is, health is a lot more complex than this. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of factors at play. And in a clinical setting, the doctor typically only gets to see and hear about a handful of them.

Most people are aware that genetics plays a large part in health. If your father had heart disease, you’re more likely to get it too. If grandma died of breast cancer, you better schedule regular mammograms.

We’re also aware that risky behavior can lead to bad health outcomes. IV drug addicts are more likely to contract HIV. Those who have unprotected sex with multiple partners are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. If your diet is mostly junk food, you need to watch out for diabetes.

But according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, genetics and individual behavior only account for about 70 percent of the risk of premature death. Another 10 percent is healthcare. So what makes up the remaining 20 percent? Social determinants.

Social Determinants

There are a broad range of social determinants that have an impact on an individual’s health. These include economic stability, physical environment, education, food, community, and more. While we often don’t think of these factors in terms of our health, they can have a strong and lasting impact.

Economic stability can keep a person from having adequate or nutritionally complete food to eat. It also can lead to a great deal of stress, which we all know is not good for our health. For the truly desperate, it can even mean not having a safe, warm place to sleep at night, or living in a home that is in disrepair. Each of these can negatively impact health.

Physical environment can make a huge difference in whether or not an individual stays healthy, or is able to recover after an illness or injury. Toxic exposures like mold and fungus can cause breathing difficulty and flare ups of asthma or other pulmonary conditions. And heavy metal exposures can be deadly over time.

Without proper education, individuals may be unaware of risks and unable to properly manage health. Low education levels also often lead to jobs in which individuals may be exposed to toxic environments or physically demanding work, leading to physical stress and injury.

In some countries, food is considered a part of healing. Even here in the U.S., we know the healing properties of a good bowl of chicken noodle soup. But too many diets today consist primarily of fast food or other poor choices for health. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies, or conditions like diabetes which can be caused by eating too much of the wrong thing.

Finally, though we often don’t realize it, community has been shown to be incredibly important for optimal health. Loneliness and social isolation are just two of the social determinants that can negatively affect health. Meanwhile, proper social support allows us the freedom to look after our health in a more proactive way.

House Calls and Social Determinants

One of the most positive aspects of the modern-day house call model is the care provider’s ability to go beyond the physical symptoms presented to them and also identify and address any underlying causes. DispatchHealth, for example, is redefining healthcare delivery through the most advanced on-demand, in-home healthcare model in the country. While a DispatchHealth medical team cares for the patient in the comfort of their home, the providers may notice exposures and other issues that you would never even think to mention in a clinical setting. Additionally, with the house call method, medical staff usually have far more time to spend getting to know the patient’s situation, so they can spot problems like social isolation or economic stressors more easily than in a quick office visit.

Heading in the Right Direction

With companies like DispatchHealth paving the way, it’s clear that the healthcare industry is heading in the right direction by incorporating social determinants of health into a more wholesome, integrated approach to patient care. With this approach, healthcare providers are finally able to care for the patient in the right place, at the right time and with the right knowledge.

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About the Author
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.