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Perceptions of the social determinants of health by two groups more and less affiliated with public health in Canada

Lynn McIntyre1*, Robert Shyleyko1, Cherie Nicholson1, Hope Beanlands2 and Lindsay McLaren1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, Teaching Research & Wellness (TRW) Building, Room 3E14 (3rd Floor), 3280 Hospital Dr. NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 4Z6, Canada

2 University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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Citation and License

BMC Research Notes 2013, 6:247  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-6-247

Published: 1 July 2013



Despite strong academic recognition of the SDOH both in Canada and internationally, acknowledgement and uptake of the SDOH in health policy and public consciousness have remained weak. This paper aims to discern reasons for limited action on the SDOH by examining the perceptions of the SDOH held by two groups more and less affiliated with public health in Canada.

We conducted formal consultation with group members on their interpretation of the SDOH and their thoughts on the nature and basis of differences between those more and less aligned with the SDOH as a basis for action. Thematic analysis was used to evaluate the views of the two groups.


Group 1 (community/public health workers) felt overwhelmed when confronted with questions regarding action on the SDOH within the context of their professional lives. They suggested an expanded list of health determinants that included factors such as voluntarism and happiness, transcending traditional notions of “root causes.” Furthermore, they did not articulate value-based reasons why others would oppose the SDOH; rather, in line with their professional roles, they adopted a value-neutral and pragmatic approach to working to improve health. Group 2 (child and youth advocacy organization members) seemed rooted in the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion framework, with their recommendations aligned with strategies such as building healthy public policy and reorienting health services. Neither group made reference to issues of social justice or inequity when they made suggestions for improving health.


We found that two groups with different affiliations to formal public health could discuss the SDOH without acknowledging the inequitable distribution of power and resources that lies at its root. We also found that those working in public health had difficulty moving beyond individual actions that they or their clients could take to improve health. For a group more focused on advocacy than direct service provision, the Ottawa Charter framework seemed more easily suited to their recommendations for action than suggesting actions that would address the SDOH. Our findings indicate that there remains work to be done in terms of translating the SDOH concept into action in Canada.

Social determinants of health; Equity; Health disparity; Health inequality; Canada