Healthypeople.gov defines social determinants of health (SDOH) as “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”
Our health and wellness aren’t just determined by the medical care we receive when we’re sick. There are many other outside reasons that often explain why we get sick and how long we’re sick. They also drive what we do to get healthier.
Here are some of the top social determinants of health and why they’re so important:
Economic stability is probably the most important SDOH. It measures a person’s social, economic, and work status. It can have a big effect on access to health care as well as healthy (or unhealthy) behaviors. For example, studies have shown that socioeconomic status is linked to a surprising number of employee physical health problems including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.
Also, it may be harder for people with low-income status to pay co-payments, deductibles, or other health care costs, which could prevent them from getting the care the need. Because of this, ignored medical issues can get worse, eventually requiring more expensive, urgent or emergency care later. When we know how stable an employees is financially, we can address barriers to care while still giving the medical attention and support that they need.
Access to Health Care
Where a person lives can also have a big impact on their access to care. People living in rural areas may have to travel further to see a doctor. Without reliable or convenient access to transportation, an employee managing a chronic condition may not keep up with regular appointments. It’s also unlikely that they would go see a doctor when sick due to the time, money, and distance involved.
Knowing the number of employees that live in rural areas can be very helpful when implementing an integrated health management program. Providing guided programs online or over the phone are good options for employees who don’t have easy access to in-person care.
Access to Education
Studies show that people with higher levels of education are more likely to be healthier and live longer.
Those who don’t have access to quality education are often victims of social discrimination and find it more difficult to find work. Without a high school degree, people are less likely to have well-paying jobs and are often more likely to be unhealthy.
Understanding the level of education of employees is vital to understanding their job opportunities, career path possibilities, and salaries. It also drives opportunities to assist with continued education for the future.
Where people live has a major impact on their health and wellbeing. There are many who live in neighborhoods with high crime, bad drinking water or air quality, and other health risks. When people live in these places, they’re more likely to be prone to things that could harm their health. This means they’re more likely to get sick and more likely to need a doctor.
Low income neighborhoods are often related to health risks like:
- Lead poisoning
- Lung infections
- Mental health issues
There’s also the issue of access to healthy foods. Many areas of low income are referred to as “food deserts.” This means that the area doesn’t have enough grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and other sellers of fresh, healthy food.
So what happens? The people who live in these areas don’t eat fruits and vegetables like they should. They don’t get the right kind of vitamins and minerals they need. As a result, they find it much harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Before telling employees they should eat a healthy diet or they should avoid carbs and high fat foods, we have to know if there are barriers to doing so, like living somewhere that simply doesn’t have fresh food available.
Social Support Networks
It’s also important to understand how support networks, or the lack thereof, impact a person’s overall health and wellbeing.
When people try to reach health care goals, they often lean on friends and family for support and encouragement. It’s also valuable to know what’s available in your community. Having a solid social support network improves the ability to cope with stressful situations and supports active health care participation.
Importance of SDOH
If employers want to create a workplace that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable, they need to look closer at SDOH. Ultimately, to understand each person’s personal circumstances and how that impacts their wellbeing and their goals for improving health.
What are some ways employers can best address social determinants of health?
- Ensure employees have access to the health care they need. Take a close look at where they live and make sure that group health provider networks include those areas.
- Educate employees on their benefits. A little instruction on what plans they have, how they work, and how best to use them can go a long way.
- Consider health plan designs that don’t require high (or any) co-pays. If health care is affordable, employees are more likely to use their benefits.
- Ask employees what they need. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the time to find out what will be best for them. While it might not be possible to meet everyone’s needs every time, there may be some things that can be done to help a lot of employees.
- Offer assistance in navigating their medical plans. Some companies, like SentryHealth, offer medical advocate programs that are designed to help each person get the care they need (and can afford).
To learn more about social determinants of health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a lot of great information.
Recognizing and addressing social determinants of health can help employers establish health and wellness programs and policies that better support positive behavior change.
We work with our clients to truly understand SDOH as well as other unique population traits. This allows us to create a customized solution that best meets the needs of employers and employees.