Many components impact a person’s overall well-being. Where we live, learn, work, and play all play a part in the big picture. The environment we live in, access to education and healthy food, financial stability, and good relationships or connections in our homes and community all impact our health.

When you look up the word health in a dictionary or google the definition, the standard answer will be similar to this:

health | helTH | noun the state of being free from illness or injury: he was restored to health | [as modifier]: a health risk.

This is the typical western definition of health to which we’ve all grown accustomed. If you don’t have a disease, illness, or injury, you are healthy.

But… that definition is evolving to include a more comprehensive picture.

Health is not limited to the results of blood tests or images scanned through x-rays and MRIs, but instead, it is determined by complex interactions between several factors collectively known as the social determinants of health (SDOH). SDOH affect a broad range of health risks and outcomes and include many parts of our lives such as our schools, workplaces, homes, and communities, access to social and economic opportunities, available resources offered to us, the safety in our homes and workplaces, healthy food and water, clean air, local emergency health services, access to jobs, access to education and the nature of our social interactions and relationships with others.

When a person is deprived of their essential needs such as food, shelter, income, or home and neighborhood safety, their stress level increases. They may appear to be healthy for the moment, but over time prolonged stress takes a toll on overall health with hormonal imbalances, sleep deprivation, memory problems, and more.

Family Nurse Practitioner Curtis Harvie says, “as a health care provider living in the community I serve, it is vital for me to address social determinants of health at the community and individual level.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the definition of health goes one step further to include spiritual wellness.

These factors combined to affect the well-being of any given individual. When we strive to live our healthiest lives, it helps to understand these factors and how they currently impact our minds, bodies, and emotions… our overall well-being.

When a person comes to SCHC for healthcare, I not only look at their medical history, labs, and vital signs. I also want to know about their housing, food, financial security and support system, and education. I use this information to tailor a plan of care that involves our entire team at SCHC to optimize your health and the health of our community.

~ Curtis Harvie, Family Nurse Practitioner

Sunshine Community Health Center

Income and Social Status

The amount and dependability of income often go hand in hand with social standing and can significantly affect our health. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, a person’s health improves as income increases. Communities with higher average incomes experience fewer illnesses and a longer life expectancy.

Income affects other determinants of health, such as food security and housing quality. Malnutrition isn’t just about being hungry – the lack of consistent, proper nutrition can lead to a host of physical problems and opens the door to disease. If there isn’t enough money to buy or rent a home in a safe neighborhood, people may be forced to choose a less secure area. An astounding amount of evidence shows that where you live actually affects your health, leading to the next discussion point – the physical environment.

Physical Environment

The physical environment includes air and water, as well as homes, workplaces, schools, and surrounding communities. Whether these factors are high-quality or not certainly impacts your health. Having easy access to primary necessities such as affordable food, green spaces like parks, and health care options also lead to a more favorable outcome.

Residents of neighborhoods with low crime rates are naturally encouraged to get out of the house and be more physically active, which is undoubtedly better for you than hanging out all day on the couch. On the other hand, neighborhoods with high crime rates are far more likely to affect you adversely, both directly and indirectly.

Those with greater access to transportation options not only save time but improve their mental health by reducing stress through comfort and convenience. Walkability also plays a considerable part in one’s health. If a neighborhood actively enables the community to walk more, the need for motorized transportation lowers, potentially reducing both local pollution and waistlines.

The physical environment can either promote or damage a person’s health, so it is essential to consider this factor when assessing our health status and potential.

Social Environment

Added to the already lengthy list of individual factors affecting your health is the Social Environment. This includes interpersonal support networks as well as broader social systems and community groups.

Quality support from family members, friends, and communities are associated with higher overall health for many reasons. Creating more cohesive communities can lead to greater feelings of empowerment, which leads to a higher level of personal responsibility for healthy behaviors. Social support enables us to deal with problems and difficult situations in our lives by providing emotional guidance, additional information and perspective, and other forms of assistance. As a rule, high-quality social networks encourage people to make life-changing choices for the better and maintain a healthy mental state. This is incredibly impactful for the under-privileged already struggling to overcome challenges that come with poverty.

Patient Advocacy

Many health care facilities now offer advocacy services to help their patients navigate the healthcare system. They provide assistance completing paperwork and help identify and connect people with services that improve overall well-being where that person lives, learns, works, and plays. For example, Patient Advocates at Sunshine Community Health Center help people with heating assistance grants, Medicaid, Medicare or Healthcare Marketplace enrollment, food stamps, senior benefits enrollment, farmers market coupons, and more.

Lori Proctor, a Patient Advocate at Sunshine Community Health Center, says, “As I meet with patients and they present their needs to me, they are so grateful to learn about available services that often didn’t know existed. It is a privilege to walk patients through the paperwork and to help them receive an outcome that improves the quality of their life.”

Ask your healthcare provider about Patient Advocacy services and learn more about your community’s resources that can assist you with your whole health.

Awareness of health determinants allows leaders and healthcare facilities like Sunshine to address public health issues more effectively. We can all help improve everyone’s health by voicing community needs and working together to change policies. By understanding and addressing social determinants, we can reduce health inequalities, enhancing all Alaskans’ welfare.

Teri Petram is the Marketing Director at Sunshine Community Health Center

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