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The Future of Population Health
Centennial Issue Population Health Health Equity
Paula M. Lantz
Aug 21, 2023
Jul 10, 2023
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The upstream/downstream metaphor for understanding the root causes or fundamental upstream drivers of population health and how they produce downstream effects, consequences, and inequities is well understood in research, teaching, and public health practice circles. The upstream/downstream framework is visible in the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) multilevel conceptual model of the social determinants of health and health inequities that posits that health and well-being are primarily determined by upstream social structural factors. These factors include socioeconomic, cultural, political, and public policy contexts that influence individuals’ socioeconomic position and experiences, as well as how racism and discrimination operate and function within the social structures.1 In turn, these macrostructural, or social structural, factors influence a broad set of intermediary social determinants of health at the mesolevels and microlevels (i.e., downstream levels), including what the WHO model refers to as the material conditions of living (housing, food, safety, etc.), health-related behaviors, biological factors, psychosocial processes, and personal health care services.
All of the factors in the WHO model work in multiple and sometimes bidirectional ways to influence both the expression of social needs and health at the individual level. Nonetheless, it is the upstream factors — social structures/systems, cultural factors, and public policy—that are the primary driving forces behind the stark downstream patterns and inequities in health that we observe across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, gender, and place lines.2 As Williams and Sternthal have articulated: “[s]ocial structure refers to enduring patterns of social life that shape an individual’s attitudes and beliefs; behaviors and actions; and material and psychological resources.”3
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