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Our health is impacted by our family history, genetics and lifestyle choices like diet, smoking and exercise. But we must also consider non-medical factors that impact health—the social and societal systems that shape our daily lives.

These factors are what we call social determinants of health. A few of many examples: income, employment, education, food security, housing, gender and race. The World Health Organization defines them as, “the important influences on health inequities—the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.” 

In health research, these are important factors to consider when exploring the relationship between health behaviours and outcomes. For instance, a researcher exploring the link between immunity status and overall health has to account for where a person lives, their income and socioeconomic status, to gain a clear picture of their results.

Researchers who are focused on developing health interventions need to minimize health inequities and understanding social determinants of health allows us to allocate resources more equitably.

The impact of social determinants of health is not uniform across, or even within countries. For example, income as a social determinant of health might have a much greater influence in countries where there is no social welfare or universal basic health care in comparison to countries that provide these benefits.

What fascinates me is the intersection of social determinants of health and digital determinants of health. It’s becoming increasingly evident that factors such as internet access, smartphone availability and other digital technologies profoundly influence an individual’s health and well-being. In a digital age where artificial intelligence continues to grow, it is critical for us to re-imagine social determinants of health and their role in informing how health systems aim to mitigate health inequities and foster a healthier, more equitable world. — Dr. Tarun Katapally