Viewing Health from a New Angle: Social Determinants of Health

April 16th, 2018 - The national average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.74 years, but this number can vary greatly based on where you live. It can differ state by state, county by county, or even by zip code. Take the Hudson Valley for example. The region is home to the two counties with both the lowest and highest life expectancies in New York State, ranging from 79.1 to 84.1 years for women.  How can two locations less than 50 miles apart have a five-year difference in expected lifespan? Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene summarized it best: “The choices New Yorkers make are influenced by the options they have.” Where you live can affect the food you have access to, exercise opportunities, employment opportunities, or the quality of air and drinking water. All of which, in turn, affect health. These types of factors fall under what are known as the social determinants of health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the social determinants of health are the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work, and age.

The importance of the social determinants of health is gaining attention throughout the health and services industry. We are realizing that what happens in a doctor’s office is just a small piece of what contributes to someone’s health. Therefore, investing in factors such as housing, food, and ending discrimination is an essential step towards improving wellbeing. Not only does putting resources into addressing the social determinants of health help improve health outcomes, it also saves money down the line. For example, it has been shown that the cost of one night in an emergency room can be equivalent to the cost of feeding someone for half a year. Additionally, access to healthy food can save someone from going to the emergency room. New York State is recognizing this as a vital strategy to reduce health care costs. As of January 2018, New York State has added expectations around the inclusion of non-profit community-based service providers and social determinants of health in value-based payment arrangements.  This will require health care providers to form new partnerships with non-medical health and human service providers such as housing providers, social service agencies, religious organizations, and food banks.

Although many are realizing that it is essential to address the social determinants of health in their services, it can be difficult to take the first steps needed. Through projects and events such as the Blueprint for Health Equity, the HealthlinkNY Community Network strives to help organizations take action to address these needs.

The Blueprint for Health Equity is a free daylong event put on by the HealthlinkNY Community Network and its partners. It is an extraordinary opportunity for professionals in the fields of behavioral health, social services, government, law enforcement, education, healthcare, media, religious organizations, and many more, to take a fresh look at the work of their organization through the eyes of the people they serve. The workshop explores the social determinants of health, with a focus on the intersection of poverty and structural racism, through a health equity lens. With the help of their partners, HealthlinkNY has hosted seven Blueprint for Health Equity events, training over 500 people from 135 organizations. There are seven more being planned for this year, starting with one in Dutchess County on May 31st.  Attendance is free and open to all who are interested.

Approaching health and disease in a way that asks more than “how can illness be treated” and includes “how can wellness be promoted now to avoid illness in the future” is an important change that can be made to improve health. Looking at the broad picture requires breaking down silos and making connections across industries and sectors to uplift the wellbeing of the Hudson Valley and its communities. 

Please click here to register for the upcoming Dutchess County event. Please contact the Community Network at for information about our upcoming Blueprint for Health Equity Events.