Learning About Social Factors That Can Affect Health

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Good health isn't just a matter of your genes or your choices. Things like where you are born, live, work, and go to school can also affect your health and quality of life. These social factors are sometimes called social determinants of health. And the way these factors affect someone can be called social needs.

For example, having housing is a social factor. But many people have trouble finding a safe, stable place they can afford. If someone needs help getting housing, that's an example of a social need.

Social needs can have a big effect on a person's health. But they're often outside of a person's control. For example, some people have more access to the things that support good health than others. And social systems and laws can sometimes make access to resources even less fair.

Areas of social needs

These are 5 main areas of social needs that connect to health.

  • Income. People who have steady incomes are usually better able to afford healthy food, good health care, safe housing, and utilities. But many people who have a steady income still don't earn enough to pay for these basic needs.

  • Education. The amount and quality of education someone has can impact their income. It can also affect the types of jobs they may get. People who grow up in places with high-quality schools, who finish high school, or whose families can help with the cost of college are more likely to get safer jobs that pay more.

  • Health care. Getting regular, high-quality health care can help your health over time. If someone has insurance and a doctor, their health is likely to be better. If a person can't afford doctor visits, or if it's hard for them to get to a health care center, they may not get regular care.

  • Neighborhood. Where someone lives can impact their health and quality of life. Places with a lot of violence or unsafe water or air can affect the health of the people who live there. So can places that are hard to walk or bike around safely.

  • Community. Good connections with friends, family, coworkers, or members of your community can benefit your health. They can provide support for healthy activities and may reduce stress.

How social needs affect health

Social needs can impact a person's health in more than one way. And often a person has more than one need at a time. Here are some examples.

A lower income can make it hard to afford basic needs. That can mean that some needs aren't met. For example, paying rent may mean having little money left to buy food.

Not having enough healthy food can impact health. It can affect weight, blood pressure, diabetes risk, and learning.

The stress of not having enough food or enough money to pay bills can also affect mental health. That can make it harder to stay connected to friends and family.

Not being able to see a doctor when needed can mean that mental and physical health issues don't get treated. When health issues don't get treated, they can get worse.

Getting support

If you need help getting needs met, you're not alone. There are things you can do to find that help. Here are some tips.

  • At doctor's visits, talk openly about your needs. Many doctors ask every patient about whether their social needs are met. This is called a social-needs screening. If your doctor doesn't ask, you can still tell them what you need help with.

  • Reach out to social workers or school counselors. These people often know about programs or supports in your area.

  • Talk with people whose experiences are like yours. Friends or family members who have had similar needs may have good advice.

  • Be kind to yourself. Many people need help in some form, at some time. And all of us deserve to have equal access to the things we need to be as healthy as we can be.

You can also find help by going online to findhelp.org or 211.org or by calling 211.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.