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What Are Social Determinants of Health?

How Your Surroundings and Situation Impact Your Health

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play that affect their health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion groups these determinants into five categories:

  • Economic stability
  • Education access and quality
  • Healthcare access and quality
  • Neighborhood and built environment
  • Social and community context

Specific examples of social determinants include, but are not limited to:

  • Safe housing, transportation and neighborhoods
  • Racism, discrimination and violence
  • Access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity
  • Polluted air and water
  • Education, job opportunities and income

Understand Screening

SDOH affect one’s ability to get the health care they need and to maintain good health. For example, if you don't have access to a grocery store with healthy food, you are less likely to have good nutrition. That can raise your risk of health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and it can even lower your life expectancy compared those who do have access to healthy foods.

“Screening for social determinants helps us get a more detailed picture of you and your health,” says Aaron Quarles, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine. “It lets us answer questions that we don’t even know to ask.”

Receive Resources

Northwestern Medicine currently screens for individual SDOH across all inpatient areas. The goal is simple: To identify individual factors that interfere with a patient’s access to health care and ability to be healthy.

If the screening reveals needs related to SDOH, the care team offers to connect patients with local resources that can help them address those needs. A resource list based on the patient’s home ZIP code is shared and printed in the After Visit Summary. 

“Don’t be surprised if your care team starts seeking information like this,” says Dr. Quarles. “Screening is not meant to place judgment. It helps us better understand the environments from which our patients come.”

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