The Sociology of Health

When we think about health we tend to think about it in purely physical or biological terms. However, health is also a major social issue due to the fact that many of the causes of illness are directly affected by social factors. Health is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as being ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing'. This definition confirmed health as a social issue and this is borne out by evidence which demonstrates that standards of health have varied over time and also from one society, culture and country to another. For example, what is considered as good health in a low-income country such as Sri Lanka is very different to what is considered good health in the high-income UK.

Current inequalities in health

It’s a fact of modern times that the wealthy in all societies, have much better physical, mental and social health than the poor. This starts at birth with the poorest members of society having the highest infant mortality rates and continues throughout life as the wealthy enjoy better access to healthcare thus having a better chance of recovering from serious illnesses and major trauma. The present world average life expectancy is 67.8 years. In most developed societies it is 78 years plus, however in the lowest ­income countries health is undermined by lack of food and poor sanitation and the average life expectancy is below 50 years. Approximately half the children born in these countries do not make it into adulthood.

Changes in health standards

Standards of health in the Western nations have vastly improved since the nineteenth century. This is mainly due to better standards of living since industrialisation and also to advances in medicine which have helped control infectious diseases which were the major killers at the beginning of the 20th century. Today ill health in western societies can be characterised mainly by chronic degenerative diseases such as heart disease and various cancers. There have also been some major changes in individual health-affecting behaviours which include cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and significant changes in the nation's diet.

Improving health

The WHO was established in 1948 within the United Nations with its role being to provide leadership in global health matters, create health research agenda, establish health standards, articulate evidence-based policy options, provide technical assistance to countries and to monitor and evaluate trends in health. In 1984 the WHO introduced the concept of health promotion and defined it as the process of enabling people to have more control of the factors which determine their health and thereby improve it. In addition to programmes promoting changes to people's lifestyles the WHO have advocated the use of legislation, education, empowerment at local level as well as fiscal measures and organisational change as methods of health promotion. Its primary objective is to reduce inequities in health. Since that time health promotion has become a main feature of health policy at all levels.

At Sociology Professor we examine the sociology of health, its effect on society and the methods used for promotion. We highlight how people's health can be improved by changes in lifestyle and we also discuss a wide array of health issues from alternative medicine and lay beliefs to health systems and euthanasia, always viewed from a sociological perspective.


Health care, economics and finance

It's almost unbelievable to think that in our modern society there are still well over a billion people who do not have access to effective and affordable health care. The less affluent countries of the world where over ninety three percent of the world's disease resides have the benefit of a meagre eleven percent of the world's heath spending.

A worthy goal

The World Health Organisation has promoted the concept of health for all and in 2008 backed an initiative to attain a level of health for people around the world that would enable them to live socially and economically productive lives.

However progress towards this worthy objective has been poor and a simple measure of this is the fact that today, people in many locations throughout the world do not have sufficient food and sadly do not have even the basic entitlement of access to clean water.

The stark reality

A hard hitting statistic that puts in perspective the difference between affluent western countries and many third world countries is that two and a half billion people in poorer countries live on less than £1.50 a day. It is estimated that due to the extreme poverty in many developing countries over thirty percent of the global population do not have access to any kind of quality health care.

Economics, finance and funding

The single aspect of health care and economics no matter how it is approached is that poverty is the critical element that affects people's ability to access health care. The wealth of a country, a particular region or any specific individual therefore has a direct and significant impact on their ability to make us of health care facilities.

The elements of finance, funding and affordability are part of a complex matrix in the analysis of health care provision and availability. So when you look at the growing financial strength of countries such as China and India there is wide ranging inequalities within these countries in the access to quality health care for their citizens.

The United States of America has a system of health care based on affordability and people can be denied access to health care based on their income levels, job type (where it doesn't provide health insurance) and ability to pay. Many people will borrow and get into debt to pay for medical attention and care when required. Increasing numbers of Americans are unable to do this because of the amounts of debt they already have. There are many occasions where debt advice and debt help is sometimes required to enable people to find a way to access health care and medical attention.

Health care fund providers emphasise their concern that something like a debt arrangement scheme shouldn’t go hand in hand with a health care plan and certainly shouldn’t be a scenario that is predominantly associated with people on low incomes.

This situation is unfair to people on low incomes and certainly does not meet the principle of providing access to quality health care for all.

A new approach is required

The problems of open access to good quality health care are widespread, and whilst data clearly highlights significant problems for developing countries there are obvious problems even within wealthy countries. It has been proposed through the World Health Organisation that a more collaborative strategy is required with structured alliances and partnerships to provide a more coordinated approach to tackling this world wide problem.


Sociology 1 – Lecture 16

Introduction to Sociology
Sociology 1 – Lecture 16


Sociology 1 – Lecture 16

01 September 2014

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