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As the coronavirus’s disproportionately devastating effects have shown, health can be intimately tied to ZIP codes. Yet many researchers and providers have come to recognize the COVID map as just one illustration of how health outcomes can be socially determined.

Studies now show that racial equity, economic stability, quality education, steady housing, workplace safety, social connections, and access to fresh food, clean air, and good water all have a measurable impact on well-being. These “social determinants of health” can influence whether we get type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, or cancer, and how well we’re likely to fare with such conditions.

These factors are finally being recognized for the role they play in collective well-being. The World Health Organization has established a commission on social determinants, an emphasis shared in the United States by health initiatives such as the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities and the National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy. Social determinants are also a key focus for the CDC.

This data is shaping the way some clinics offer services. In 2018 the Cleveland Clinic launched its population health initiative, working with community partners to close gaps in access by provid­ing basic services, such as rides to clinic appointments.

At the same time, recognizing the social determination of health also involves addressing those influences that may not appear health-­related, such as wealth inequality, ­social isolation, and systemic racism and discrimination. These issues require action at the policy level.

“Many solutions for better health exist outside the healthcare system,” reads a 2019 report from the American Cancer Society’s Blueprint for Cancer Control.

Put another way: Just as the factors that shape health are all around us, the solutions to health inequities are everywhere, too.

This was excerpted from “The Future of Health” which was published in the July/August 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Courtney Helgoe

Courtney Helgoe is the Experience Life features editor.

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