According to Holly Dygert, Ph.D., people are often surprised when they hear that factors beyond genetics shape health outcomes.
“We have such an emphasis on genes driving health patterns in the United States,” says the Sociology and Anthropology lecturer, who teaches in Bryant’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Social determinants of health (SDOH) draw attention to different social forces like the economy, healthcare, social, and community contexts that shape health outcomes.”
This spring, Dygert will speak to this topic in the “Social Determinants of Health” course, an offering in the university’s new Sociology and Anthropology major that explores social issues and their roots so students learn how individual, group, and institutional actions can respond to challenges today. In Dygert’s class, students will examine SDOH in different global contexts and draw on the field of medical anthropology to explore policies and approaches to solving public health issues.
Scientists have examined the non-medical factors that influence our health since the early 19th century, however, SDOH rose in prominence during the pandemic when people witnessed how economic and ethnic indicators determined individuals’ susceptibility to COVID-19; those with the least available resources were most impacted.
While the integration of SDOH into mainstream medicine is in its infancy, Dygert says there’s a lot of work being done to address today’s health inequities. She notes that Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist and physician who created a health clinic in Haiti, became a powerful force in making strides toward health equity. He found that people couldn’t get to his facility due to lack of transportation, so his grant requests began including funding for donkey transportation, which improved individuals’ access to care.
“Paul’s work has been really influential in getting people to think beyond the clinic and more broadly about social circumstances in which people live,” Dygert says.
Other medical anthropologists have created case studies to help physicians recognize how to diagnose SDOH. Dygert notes that medical trainees often read case studies that primarily focus on the biological processes of diagnosing illnesses.
“The fact that some of the leading medical journals are creating case studies to train students in how to see and act on SDOH is really important,” Dygert says.
As a global anthropologist whose areas of expertise include economic development, gender, indigenous rights and multiculturalism, youth, and sexual and reproductive health, Dygert finds the anthropology and sociology field an exciting frontier for health equity.
“We have made amazing strides in improving people’s experiences around the world. This can be a tough field to work in because there is still so much struggling, but it’s important to study because this is a place where people can help shape the future and contribute to positive change,” Dygert says.