Saturday, August 16, 2014
Delmar Boulevard, Geo-mapping, and the Social Determinants of Health
The social determinants of health are those factors that affect people’s health status that are the result of the social situation in which they find themselves. Thus, in the well-known graphic from Healthy People 2010 (dropped, for some reason, from Healthy People 2020), which I have reproduced several times, they complement the other determinants such as the biological (genetics), but are represented in most of the other areas. Physical environment and socioeconomic environment, certainly, but even “behaviors” are affected by the circumstances into which one is born and lives. So is biology, actually, as we learn more about genetic coding predisposing some people to addictive behaviors. Certainly it is not all volitional or evidence of weak character.
The social determinants of health can be partially enumerated, and include adequate housing (including sufficient heat in the winter), adequate food, education, and also a reasonable amount of nurturingand support from your family. In short, they are “the rest of life”, outside and often ignored by the healthcare system. Camara Phyllis Jones, in her wonderful “cliff analogy” (which I have also reproduced before) creates a metaphor in which medical care services are provided for those who need them (or “fall into them”) along a cliff face, while the social determinants of health are represented by how far a person, or a group of people, lives from that cliff face. As such, it illustrates the degree of protection that we all have from falling off that cliff, more for some and less for others.
One of the clearest ways to show the impact of these determinants is by a technique called “geo-mapping” in which certain characteristics (income, educational level, gang violence, drug use, number of grocery stores or liquor stores, public transportation routes, whatever you can think of) are laid over maps of a city, town, or region. We have seen these portrayed on TV or in the newspapers as national and state maps for political events (such as what areas voted for who), but they can also be very useful for understanding the different challenges faces by people living in different areas. The work of Steven Woolf and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University has greatly contributed to this work; in addition to their incredibly useful County Health Calculator, has produced graphs that can be found on the Robert Wood Johnson Commission for a Healthier America site that show how life expectancy can vary dramatically in different neighborhoods, as in the map displayed of the Washington, DC area, mapped along Metro lines for greater effect, or the one of my area, Kansas City, Missouri (which doesn’t have a Metro!)
A recent contribution to this field has been made by Melody S. Goodman and Keon L. Gilbert, of Washington University in St. Louis, who mapped the dramatic differences across Delmar Boulevard in that city, in “Divided cities lead to differences in health”. Their graphic shows the disparities in education, income, and housing value, and, unsurprising, racial composition, on either side of Delmar. This work was covered in a BBC documentary. Dr. Goodman, speaking to a symposium from her alma mater, the Harvard School of Public Health, is quoted as saying “Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code.”
This is a pretty sad commentary, given not only the incredible amount of money that has been spent on unraveling the genetic code but the amount of faith and expectation that we have been convinced to have in how this new genetic knowledge will facilitate our health. By knowing what we are at risk for, genetically, the argument goes, science can work on “cures” that target the specific genes. This is a topic for a different discussion, but in brief one problem is that the most common diseases we suffer from are not the result of a single gene abnormality. It is probable that, at least in the short-to-medium term, knowledge of our genetics will be more likely to lead to higher life insurance rates than cures of our diseases. The more profound issue, however, is that there is evidence from the social determinants of health, from the work of Woolf and Goodman and many others, that we do not address the causes of ill health even when we know what they are.
Why is this so? Why is there such great resistance to understanding, believing, that investment in housing, education, jobs, and opportunities will have a much greater impact on people’s health than more and more money spent on high-tech medical care (and, of course, profit for not only the providers, but the drug and device companies and middleman insurance companies)? It is in part because we hope (and, when we are more privileged, expect) that we will be the beneficiaries. And it is also because we choose to believe that those who do not have the benefits we have (of money, education, family) somehow “deserve” it because of character flaws.
The issue of “fault” is articulately addressed by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times Op-Ed on August 10, 2014, “Is a hard life inherited?” Kristof argues that it is, not genetically but because the circumstances to which one is born and in which one grows up, the presence of caring parents who read to you rather than beat you, who take care of you instead of abusing drugs, as well as adequate food and housing make a tremendous difference in how you turn out.
Indeed, another major study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, to be published in his “life’s work”, “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood”, and covered on NPR, confirms this. Alexander and his colleagues tracked nearly 800 children for more than 20 years, and found that those from less privileged backgrounds with lower incomes and less supportive families did worse. Only 33 of the children moved from the low income to the high income bracket. Problems with drugs and alcohol were more prevalent among white males than other groups, but they did better financially anyway. Some people, rarely, overcome the deck being stacked against them, but most of those who do well after being born with relative privilege would likely not be among them had they been in the same situation. Kristof writes:
ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes. Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling…
That lack of empathy leads to a lack of action; we are willing to accept people living in conditions that we would never accept for our family and neighbors, not only across the globe but across town, or even across a street. From the point of view of health, our priorities and investments are misplaced when we do not address the social determinants of health as well as cures for disease. When we do not try to change the known factors of zip code that impact our health as we investigate those of the genetic code.
If there are to be “cures” that come from our understanding of genetics, there is every reason to expect that they will be one more thing that is available to the people on the south side of Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis long before they are to those on the north side of the street.
 Jones CP, Jones CY, Perry GS, “Addressing the social determinants of children’s health: a cliff analogy”, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2009Nov;20(4):supplement pp 1-12. DOI: 10.1353/hpu.0.0228