By Cindi Meche

Unraveling the Layers of Social Determinants of Health

Many diseases and medical conditions plague people across New Mexico with patients waiting to receive medical care only until a situation becomes critical. This isn’t by choice but is often a symptom of the social determinants of health (SDoH). It’s an issue that The University of New Mexico’s College of Population Health (COPH) is taking head on in hopes of getting more people the care they need before it becomes an emergency.  

Social determinants of health encompass a broad spectrum of non-medical factors that shape individuals' well-being and their quality of life. These factors include economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and built environments, and social and community context, as outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There is also the additional impact of forces such as economic policies, social norms, racism, and political systems in shaping daily life conditions. To simplify, social determinants of health are the external factors that may prevent someone from receiving the care they need.

Griffin Rinehimer Woolery, COPH Senior Project Manager is helping to explore the tangled world of SDoH, understanding that beyond the traditional realms of medicine, there are multifaceted, connected factors that influence health outcomes, exposing the need for structural changes in society to address health disparities. Woolery looks at those challenges in her work and the potential for transformative interventions in the realm of public health.

As a senior project panager within the College and supporting its partnership with the New Mexico Department of Health to form the Academic Health Department, Woolery’s responsibilities include investigating and creating initiatives around SDoH. Woolery considers that historical disenfranchisement of certain populations also leads to disparities in health outcomes. To change the paradigm, she says it’s important to make long-term, structural adjustments and find ways to challenge systems and related actors to take action in improving environmental conditions. Woolery recognizes the complexities of addressing historical and contemporary practices like redlining and racism, emphasizing the need for community specific support.

Griffin Rinehimer Woolery
I have a personal interest in this. I feel like I'm very social justice oriented in the way I think, and the work that I want to do around diversity, equity, and inclusion in policy, as well as public health. So, for me, it’s more of a personal passion, but that makes the job so much more fulfilling.
Griffin Rinehimer Woolery, UNM College of Population Health

Woolery knows the challenges of researching social determinants and the depth and interconnectedness of societal aspects. Despite the complexity, the potential impact of research collaboration can help form interventions that address the root causes rather than symptoms of illness for New Mexicans.

One key aspect to implementing change, Woolery emphasized, is the importance of community involvement in interventions, advocating for community-based participatory research. It is crucial to include the people in the entire process. Individual communities are more apt to define specific issues, and more importantly, including them in the process allows them to take ownership of implementing a resolution that can stick. That is why it’s so important for SDoH to be examined with a community specific lens; no two communities will be exactly alike with issues and resolutions. Woolery says the goal is to support empowerment of communities to lead their own projects and to create their own change.
Two areas we are interested in are diabetes and substance use. While we plan to disseminate an informational report, in the end we want to help make more tailored recommendations to support specific community needs.
Griffin Rinehimer Woolery, UNM College of Population Health

Working with SDoH is an ongoing, evolving process and defining success can be a challenge in such a complex, ever-changing field. However, success according to Woolery would include achieving benchmarks set forth by the College, seeking transformative effects to community health and creating long-term partnerships.

Efforts made towards minimizing the social determinants of health shows the importance of addressing health disparities within New Mexico. As public health initiatives continue to evolve, the work being done at the College of Population Health stands as a testament to the importance of holistic, community-centered approaches to create lasting positive impacts on health outcomes. The journey into SDoH is not only about understanding the present but also about shaping a healthier and more equitable future.

Categories: College of Population Health