Even in the most affluent countries, people who are less well off have substantially shorter life expectancies and more illnesses than the rich. Not only are these differences in health an important social injustice, they have also drawn scientific attention to some of the most powerful determinants of health standards in modern societies. They have led in particular to a growing understanding of the remarkable sensitivity of health to the social environment and to what have become known as the social determinants of health.
This publication outlines the most important parts of this new knowledge as it relates to areas of public policy. The ten topics covered include the lifelong importance of health determinants in early childhood, and the effects of poverty, drugs, working conditions, unemployment, social support, good food and transport policy. To provide the background, we start with a discussion of the social gradient in health, followed by an explanation of how psychological and social influences affect physical health and longevity.
In each case, the focus is on the role that public policy can play in shaping the social environment in ways conducive to better health: that focus is maintained whether we are looking at behavioural factors, such as the quality of parenting, nutrition, exercise and substance abuse, or at more structural issues such as unemployment, poverty and the experience of work. Each of the chapters contains a brief summary of what has been most reliably established by research, followed by a list of implications for public policy.
Health policy was once thought to be about little more than the provision and funding of medical care: the social determinants of health were discussed only among academics. This is now changing. While medical care can prolong survival and improve prognosis after some serious diseases, more important for the health of the population as a whole are the social and economic conditions that make people ill and in need of medical care in the first place. Nevertheless, universal access to medical care is clearly one of the social determinants of health.
We hope that by tackling some of the material and social injustices, policy will not only improve health and well-being, but may also reduce a range of other social problems that flourish alongside ill health and are rooted in some of the same socioeconomic processes