Making the connection: How social and economic factors influence health

A presentation being delivered today at the College of Family Physicians Family Medicine Conference is focusing on determinants of health that have been overlooked in the past.

Income, education and housing have dramatic effects on patient health

Studies have shown that social determinants of health like socioeconomic status are connected to specific health conditions. (CBC)

A presentation being delivered today at the College of Family Physicians Family Medicine Conference is focusing on determinants of health that have been overlooked in the past.

Factors such as income, education and housing are starting to be recognized as important variables for doctors and healthcare providers to take into account when dealing with patients.

Dr. Monika Dutt, a Nova Scotia physician, is giving the presentation. She is also executive director of Upstream, a non-profit organization that does research into some of the peripheral factors of health.

"We often focus on the individual and we say, you know, 'you should exercise, you should eat healthily,' and there is, you know, evidence to support that, that it does help and it does have an impact," she said. 

"But it's hard with not having a good environment to do that in."

'Clear connections'

Dutt said that social determinants like income are being found to have links to health concerns, and specific conditions.

"There's lots and lots of evidence that show clear connections," she said.

"There are certain cancers that you are at higher risk when you are lower-income, different chronic diseases, in particular, cardiovascular disease, heart disease, diabetes, and in children we know there are impacts," she said.

Monika Dutt is a family physician from Nova Scotia, and executive director of Upstream, a non-profit organization that researches how social and economic factors impact health. (Matt Rainnie/CBC)

"We know that kids who are lower-income, who aren't able to have the things they need to be healthy, don't do as well in school, they are you know more likely to have chronic conditions later on in life."

She also said that housing can have a dramatic impact, citing an initiative in Cape Breton to provide homes for people with mental health problems. 

When they were given a place to live, it reduced the number of hospital and emergency room visits, saving time and money in the health-care system. 

'All of us together'

Dutt said that family doctors are starting to work in ways they haven't in the past.

"There's been a lot of physicians who are involved in, you know, many different areas you might not always think of doctors being involved in," she said.

She said that physicians are starting to look at ways they can help the health of their patients beyond the clinic, like helping lower-income people "access programs that might support their income."

Dr. Monika Dutt says that studies have shown that including prescription medication in provincial health plans would save money for the health-care system. (CBC)

Dutt also said that a lot of initiatives will help save money for the system on the whole, such as providing medication as part of the provincial health plans.

"We know that would save money if we implemented that, because so many people end up not taking their medications because they can't afford them which leads to health care complications."

She said that doctors pushing for policy changes that affect social determinants of health is important for their patients, from pushing for a $15 minimum wage, to ending the use of coal-powered electricity generation.

"All of us together, create the society we live in."

With files from CBC: Island Morning