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Understanding social aspects that affect health is critical to achieving health equity

A person’s ability to live a healthy life is affected not only by biological and genetic factors but also by the conditions in which they are born, grow, live, work, play and age. Called social determinants of health, these factors account for 80% of the impact on an individual’s health. Providing safe, quality care to the increasingly diverse patient population at Penn State Health requires understanding and addressing those aspects of a patient’s life that affect their ability to reach their full health potential.

This goal is the driving force behind health equity – an approach to patient care that aims to ensure no one is disadvantaged from achieving their full health potential because of their social position or other socially determined circumstances.

Health care-related organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Joint Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Hospital Association, Vizient, the World Health Organization and most recently The Leapfrog Group, recognize the need to make health equity a priority in patient care. The Joint Commission, which accredits more than 22,000 health care organizations and programs across the country, set a national patient safety goal in July 2023 to improve health care equity.

Penn State Health has taken a systemwide approach to addressing health equity that is in line with the health system’s mission to continually improve the health and well-being of the people of Pennsylvania, and beyond.

The objective of our Health Equity Program aims to reduce the incidences of health disparities among specific population groups, most often reflected in length and quality of life, rates and severity of disease, presence of other adverse health conditions and access to medical treatment.

Social determinants of health and health equity

A successful health equity program can have a tremendous impact on patient outcomes, preventive care and health care management and requires our health system to address social determinants of health – the specific factors that can play a role or impact a person’s ability to achieve their fullest health potential.

Social determinants of health include:

  • Health care access and quality of care, including social and emotional health and health behaviors such as tobacco use, diet and exercise, alcohol use and sexual activity
  • Education access and quality, including language and literacy skills
  • Social and community support, including family and social support, physical and emotional safety, and exposure to racism or other forms of discrimination
  • Economic status, such as job status, income, housing stability, access to transportation and food insecurity
  • Neighborhoods and built environment, including exposure to violence and access to transportation and clean water
  • Physical environment

Penn State Health is implementing educational programs to provide an opportunity for its workforce to understand the impact of these social determinants of health and how each individual can take steps to minimize social determinants of health. These steps include reducing bias or discrimination (including microaggressions), exploring the impact of artificial intelligence, ChatGBT and telehealth on health care experiences, and improving our use of culturally and linguistically appropriate service standards. Some of these educational opportunities are highlighted below.

Learn more about health equity

Because health equity is a priority both to Penn State Health and the patients we serve, be on the lookout for future stories and updates on this important initiative.

If you have questions about our Health Equity Program or would like more information, contact the Penn State Health Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at

Upcoming events

Upstander Café: Microaggression and Unconscious Bias Education
Friday, Sept. 1
7–8 a.m.

Upstander Café: Social Justice Hybrid Session | The Impact of AI on Civil Rights
Friday, Sept. 1
Noon–1 p.m.

Inclusion Academy – Culturally Responsive Care: Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services Standards and the Role They Play in Addressing Health Disparities
Thursday, Sept. 21
Noon–1 p.m.

Cultivating Health Empowerment: Transforming Diverse Lives for Optimal Health: Telehealth: A Tool to Advance Care for Diverse Populations
Thursday, Sept. 21
7­–8:15 p.m.

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