After three years of being on an event hiatus, we couldn’t wait to host fellow industry professionals for a conversation on health.

Enter the revival of our Health Cities Breakfast Series. On February 9, 2023, we welcomed over 70 people from different backgrounds like service care providers, government, non-profits, students, and companies to the Foundry Room for a discussion on addressing social determinants of health for “A New Lens on Health and Prevention.” The panel included experts in public health, social services, housing, and poverty alleviation, providing a diverse perspective on the topic:

  • Dr. Kate Storey – Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, CIHR/PHAC Applied Public Health Chair, and Distinguished Researcher, Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation
  • Tricia Smith – Executive Director, Radius (Boyle McCauley Health Centre)
  • Gary St. Amand – Chief Executive Officer, Bissell Centre
  • Dr. Karen Lee – Director, Housing for Health, and Associate Professor, Division of Preventive Medicine, Dept of Medicine, University of Alberta; and Author, Fit Cities

What Are Determinants of Health?

To put it simply, determinants of health are the personal, social, economic, and environmental factors that influence our long-term health – from the neighborhoods we grow up in, to the strength of our social connections, to the income we earn.

There are significant disparities in health outcomes based on these determinants. Individuals who experience social and economic injustices have higher rates of chronic disease, injury, and premature death. Addressing social determinants of health is essential for creating an equitable society – and by ensuring all individuals have access to the resources they need to be healthy, we can reduce health disparities and create a more prosperous and thriving society for all.

The full recording of this panel discussion is now available – and we’ve rounded up some of the main takeaways from the event.

Determinants of Health Affect Everyone

Social determinants of health affect everyone to varying degrees. While those who are disadvantaged or with low income are disproportionately impacted, even those at the highest levels of income can be affected.

“How many people who are houseless have you seen that are senior citizens? You won’t really see any because they don’t live long enough.”

– Gary St. Amand 

If social determinants of health are not addressed early, they can contribute to poor outcomes. For example, adverse childhood experiences and low literacy in childhood can have lasting effects. Access to information and community support is also important for health care utilization. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of all members of the community to feel accountable for the well-being of the whole community. 

Equity is the Goal – Not Equality 

Equity and equality are often confused – and when it comes to social determinants of health, equity is key. This means giving everyone what they need to address systemic barriers that prevent people from accessing the same opportunities and resources. It requires acknowledging and prioritizing the needs of underrepresented communities and considering the root causes of social inequities.   

“If health is a precondition for learning, not all children truly have an equal opportunity to grow and thrive.”

– Dr. Kate Storey

Prioritizing equity requires policies and practices that reduce inequities and involve excluded or underserved communities in the decision-making process.  

Our Environment Matters  

Our environmental conditions, including where we live, work, and seek care, have a significant impact on our health outcomes. The design and organization of these environments, as well as how we build our physical surroundings, can contribute to positive or negative health outcomes. For example, high-stress work environments and long work hours can contribute to chronic diseases and mental health issues.

“How we design our environments can ultimately make a difference.”

 Dr. Karen Lee 

Urban design can play a huge role in human health. If we live in a walkable neighborhood, studies show that it’s associated to not only increased physical activity, but also increased social connection as people run into each other and decreased crime because there are more eyes on the street.  

Data is Crucial, But Limited 

Understanding social determinants of health requires more than just collecting data and reducing it down to numbers. We need to look at the lived experiences and realities of individuals, rather than just relying on randomized control trials.  

“Data doesn’t make space for lived experiences.”

– Ryan Kelly

This requires looking at root factors and using data to make better decisions. While social services agency data can be helpful, it has limitations and partnerships with other organizations can provide more comprehensive information on social determinants of health. 

Partnership is the Solution 

There are many policy interventions that can help to address social determinants of health, including expanding access to healthcare, increasing affordable housing, improving educational opportunities, and implementing policies that support economic mobility. A silver bullet solution to addressing social determinants of health isn’t possible – but if we start small, we can implement and scale what works. 

“We need to remember that we don’t have to boil the ocean. We need to bite off a small piece.”

 Tricia Smith

Creative partnerships can help break down barriers between data and lived experiences through a multi-sectoral approach that involves collaboration between healthcare providers, community organizations, and government agencies. Interventions should be tailored to the specific needs of each community and should aim to improve access to resources that support health.

One thing is clear: everyone has a role to play in addressing social determinants of health. 

Thank you again to the panel for a thought-provoking conversation! We hope to continue this conversation and work toward addressing social determinants of health to build a healthier community for all.  

Watch the full recording of the panel discussion below: