In 2012, Americans spent nearly $9,000 per capita on health care, double the average amount spent by other developed nations. Despite this huge investment, we aren’t as healthy as we could be. It’s a crucial time for the US health care system to take steps to innovate, broaden our lens, and help Americans be healthier.
First, we have to make sure everyone can see a doctor as needed.
Second, we need to emphasize ongoing preventative care. This includes well visits, immunizations, and screening to halt the progress of physical illness like diabetes. Preventative care and screening can also prevent development of some behavioral health conditions like mental illness and addiction.
Third, it’s time to re-think our understanding of health. Health doesn’t start in a doctor’s office, it starts in homes and communities. Understanding health in this way gives us a broader and better lens through which to see solutions.
The Science of Healthy Neighborhoods
Science tells us that health is influenced by specific conditions in a person’s environment. Risk factors for compromised health include poverty, generational poverty, unemployment, limited education, and being part of a marginalized racial or ethnic group.
Personal choices are key, but limited to the options that are available to us. For example, residents of lower-income neighborhoods may not have access to full-service supermarkets. Families lacking a supermarket rely on convenience stores, paying higher prices for lower quality, unhealthy food. One recent study in the US found that where full-service supermarkets exist, the prevalence of obesity is lower.
Conversely, lower-income communities have easier access to fast food restaurants, especially near schools. Also, they tend to have a higher number of liquor retailers. Researchers have found that greater alcohol outlet density is associated with more drinking, and more alcohol- related harms, including medical harms, injury, crime, and violence.
Through this broader health lens, solutions come to light to improve community conditions and access to the resources needed for health. Social determinants of health can be defined as the circumstances in which we’re born, grow up, live, work, play, and age. When we improve these circumstances, we cut back on the need for medical care. As the bar is raised for healthy communities, everyone benefits.
To learn more about the Social Determinants of Health: