Teaching the Social Determinants of Health: A Path to Equity or a Road to Nowhere?
Medical schools are increasingly called to include social responsibility in their mandates. As such, they are focusing their attention on the social determinants of health (SDOH) as key drivers in the health of the patients and communities they serve. However, underlying this emphasis on the SDOH is the assumption that teaching medical students about the SDOH will lead future physicians to take action to help achieve health equity. There is little evidence to support this belief. In many ways, the current approach to the SDOH within medical education positions them as “facts to be known” rather than as “conditions to be challenged and changed.” Educators talk about poverty but not oppression, race but not racism, sex but not sexism, and homosexuality but not homophobia. The current approach to the SDOH may constrain or even incapacitate the ability of medical education to achieve the very goals it lauds, and in fact perpetuate inequity. In this article, the authors explore how “critical consciousness” and a recentering of the SDOH around justice and inequity can be used to deepen collective understanding of power, privilege, and the inequities embedded in social relationships in order to foster an active commitment to social justice among medical trainees. Rather than calling for minor curricular modifications, the authors argue that major structural and cultural transformations within medical education need to occur to make educational institutions truly socially responsible.