Population and Public Health

Social Determinants of Health: Examining The Root Causes of Health

Social Determinants of Health: Examining The Root Causes of Health

Despite a significant portion of the gross domestic product being spent on addressing healthcare in the United States, disparities in health outcomes are continually increasing. In Healthbox’s report, Root Causes of Health, we look into the ways in which digital technology and unique healthcare partnerships can be leveraged to mitigate the effects social determinants have on population health.

Social Determinants of Health: Definitions

Health is often thought of as only taking place in a doctor’s office, hospital, or in terms of the absence of illness. However, in reality, only 20% of health is determined by traditional healthcare; the remaining 80% is determined by socioeconomic factors, the physical environment and health behaviors. These are the social determinants, or root causes, of health which occur everywhere we live, learn, work, worship and play.

Social determinants, through the “social” moniker they bear, are considered a softer science than medicine, when in fact they are drivers affecting the majority of health outcomes. They are preventable, avoidable and actionable, encompassing addressable domains such as economic stability, neighborhood and physical environment, education, food security, community and social context, access to healthcare, and policy. Everyone is a stakeholder in root causes of health and all individuals have a responsibility to take action and impact social determinants to improve the health of the most vulnerable populations.

RELATED: Turning Data into Action to Improve Population Health

During an Executive Forum we hosted earlier this year, Healthbox explored these drivers, bringing together healthcare executives, community stakeholders, and subject matter experts to discuss the unique ways in which their organizations can impact this field. The keynote speaker, Megan Cunningham, managing deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), spoke at length about the profound impact bias and prejudice have on resource distribution and thus the health of the most vulnerable populations. From lessons learned through the Healthbox Forum, we found ourselves updating our definitions of social determinants of health to include policy and race. We also rebranded the social determinants as “root causes” in order to frame them as all-encompassing and to adequately express their importance in our lives.

Leveraging Data, Technology and Unique Partnerships to Improve Health Outcomes

With our focus on digital health, we aim to emphasize the importance of collecting population data and utilizing technology to identify areas of greatest need. These tools can also help organizations prioritize and make efficient use of the resources that exist to improve health outcomes. Access to this data not only gives stakeholders the ability to better understand the health opportunity landscape, but it also serves as incentive to build infrastructure in places with the highest need to impact health outcomes at the root level. Data and technology can be used to design predictive analytics and innovation models that can mitigate environmental health hazards like lead paint, mold and food borne illnesses. As an example, algorithms that rank food establishments based on likelihood to have food violations allow the CDPH to send inspectors to those locations first to prevent illness before it occurs.

At the same time, while data is a powerful tool for evaluating the health landscape, predicting outcomes, informing decision-making and measuring the success of an intervention, we must be aware of confirmation bias. How can we ensure the data we’re using is accurate, valid and complete in order to create objective, evidence-based predictions and solutions? Data alone cannot be used to create significant change; it all depends on how we use it. Community leaders and decision-makers, such as large healthcare organizations or employers, in partnership with for- and non-profit organizations, schools, public parks, or local government, among many others, can lend a hand in moving the lever for root causes of health.

Informed partnerships, empowered communities and a strong public voice have the power to drive collective benefit for the medical commons. The Healthbox goal is to empower organizations to create opportunity and equity as the foundation for community abundance, growth, wellness and productivity.

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Updated November 30, 2020