Medical education is increasingly emphasizing the social determinants of health, but much more needs to be done

In addition to the individual factors of daily life that shape a patient’s experience, we also heard repeatedly about the need for increased emphasis on the social determinants of health – community and society-level factors that influence health outcomes. Consideration of social determinants is not new to health; it has long been a central focus of public health, for example, and it is certainly not a new concept among medical professionals either. However, our interviews were filled with repeated calls for the healthcare professionals to be involved in increased learning about the social factors that drive health outcomes.

We heard from experts such as Deans Sue Cox and Clay Johnston of Dell Medical School, who spoke about encouraging medical students to get involved in the local community to build a fuller understanding of how community factors influence outcomes. Dr. Sarah Kim, an endocrinologist at UCSF, said she hoped medical students could learn about diabetes from experts on poverty and socioeconomic inequality as a way of understanding a critical factor underlying the burden of chronic disease. Others expressed their own variations, but the theme remained the same: medical professionals will benefit if they can understand the social and economic factors that drive health, disease, and the ways that illness is experienced.