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August 14, 2015 4:32 PMCategory: Nutrition, Physical Activity

Talking about the Social Determinants of Health

Where we live, learn, work and play impacts our health.

As planners and public health professionals, we understand this, but sometimes it’s just plain hard to talk about. Using technical terminology while engaging with the general public or policy officials can lead to misunderstandings — or even inhibit relationship building.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published researched and practiced strategies in a messaging guide titled “A New Way to Talk about the Social Determinants of Health” to shed light on just how to navigate the tricky discussion of the key social factors that impact health.

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According to, social determinants of health are the conditions that impact how people live but are not directly linked to eating healthy or physical activity.  Often these determinants have to do with our access to or availability of resources that influence our health directly or indirectly.  And, these social determinants are usually tied to where we live.

Five key areas of the social determinants of health are: Economic Stability, Education, Social and Community Context, Health and Health Care and Neighborhood and Built Environment. For more information, check out the Social Determinants of Health page as part of the Healthy People 2020 Approach.

The messaging guide is meant to share best practices of engaging with the public, as well as policymakers, when discussing just how people see health differences throughout the U.S. It turns out that political perspectives impact how people perceive and talk about health, as found by research from Olson Zaltman Associates, who helped the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in their efforts to dissect people’s thoughts on health.

By further engaging with Western Strategies, a public opinion messaging research group, RWJF surveyed 3,000 Americans over four years and was able to develop language and marketing strategies that effectively explain how social factors deeply contribute to our health:

The goal of this multi-phase project was to translate the concept of social determinants (and ultimately calls for action that stem from it) that might otherwise sound bland or unintelligible to the lay ear — even the educated ear — into compelling, motivating messages that not only create concern about the way things are but create hope that problems related to social determinants are solvable …

If your coalition or related organization needs some tips on how to talk about health disparities and what leads to them, the guide is a great starting place! Included in the guide are six additional ways to describe the social determinants of health depending on the audience, as well as a glossary of additional terms that help people describe health disparities differently according to who is taking part in the conversation.

Below are the summarized takeaways from the document’s Keys to Effective Messaging:

  • Americans, including opinion elites, do not spontaneously consider social influences on health.
  • They do, however, recognize social factors and see their importance when primed.
  • Americans, including elites, do not resonate with the language of “social determinants of health,” but they do resonate with the core construct.
  • Messages that sway Americans, including elites, are values-based and emotion-laden, not overly academic.
  • Americans consciously believe in equal opportunity to health, but messages that describe disparities evoke negative reactions unless written carefully to avoid victim-blaming and to emphasize the importance of people exercising personal responsibility.
  • Messages that mix traditionally conservative values (e.g., the value of small business) with traditional progressive values (e.g., equal opportunity) tend to fare better in speaking to health disparities.

Messaging Guide: A New Way to Talk about the Social Determinants of Health

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