Reframing “Social Determinants of Health” So People Can Listen

“It turns out that trying to figure out how to say something simply can be a complicated process.

Each of us has developed our own set of beliefs and values. As we listen and learn new concepts, we try to fit what we hear into these existing frames. And because many of our beliefs are so deeply held, it means that even the most seemingly innocuous terms can be laden with meaning.” -RWJF Report

A mentor of mine, Lee Mun Wah says “begin where they are, not where you want them to be” in his list of 9 Healthy Ways to Communicate.  Healthcare inequality, environmental justice, social determinants of health, etc. are great terms because they convey a lot of meaning to those in the know.  However, when these terms are new or conflict with an individuals experience or perception they can erect obstacles to communication.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently published A New Way to Talk About the Social Determinants of Health.  This report found that the phrase “social determinants of health” consistently “failed to engage the audience” and some healthcare facts were flat out not believed by audiences.  The summary presents effective messages that were received across the social and political spectrum.  Perhaps more importantly the report presents the reasons that different messages are or are not heard.  I think this is vital information for anyone starting or continuing to have a discussion about healthcare inequality.  I’ll keep using that term on this site.

So what does this picture have to do with the social determinants of health? … “Illustrating with examples like ‘playgrounds and parks’ and ‘in the air we breathe and water we drink,’ makes the concept of social factors more tangible.” Read the report for more messaging insights.

Download the report at

Visit the RWJF Website for presentations and more on this and other projects at


~ by Brendan Kober on December 3, 2011.

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