At the heart of this month’s Spectrum Health Lakeland Community Grand Rounds presentation will be Dr. Bechara Choucair, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president and chief community health officer. He will share his experience with the ways in which health systems, such as Spectrum Health Lakeland, can improve the health of the populations they serve by working to improve the social factors that shape health – including housing, employment, education and neighborhood safety and stability, often referred to as the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH).

SDoH, defined as characteristics of the places where we live, work, play, go to school and worship, are gaining recognition as essential ingredients for healthy people and communities.

As Healthy People 2020 notes, health is determined, in large part, by access to a wide range of social and economic opportunities, such as safe and secure homes and neighborhoods; cohesive communities; quality schools; living wages; clean soil, water and air; and nutritious food.

Access to these health determinants varies, but communities of color are much less likely to consistently experience good schools, safe neighborhoods, quality housing and clean natural environments. This is reflected in their health and leads to health disparities that compromise overall community wellbeing. As a result, the link between racism and SDoH are being brought to the fore in efforts to improve community health.

Racism, in all its ugly forms, is at the center of many of the health inequities that exist among communities. In talking about racism and health, it is important to note, as stated by Dr. Camara Jones, senior fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse College’s School of Public Health, “racism is a ‘system,’ not an individual character flaw or moral failing.” When we talk about racism in the context of health, we are talking about governmental and organizational laws, policies and practices – not individuals’ remarks and behaviors.

Around the country, some organizations and communities are taking action to address SDoH and racialized health disparities.

Led by the Centers for Disease Control, together with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, research is underway to analyze data from the 500 largest U.S. cities and approximately 28,000 census tracts within these cities. These analyses will be used to identify health problems at a hyper-local level, and then to develop a targeted public health prevention response.

Milwaukee County isn’t waiting for the CDC. It has declared racism a public health crisis. County leaders have been trained on racial equity and another 4,000 county employees will be trained later this year. One of Milwaukee’s explicit goals is to encourage other local, state and national entities to also recognize racism as a public health crisis. Will we be one?

In our county, Community Grand Rounds aims to educate both health care providers and the community about the link between racism and the health of everyone in our community. Using data, determination, and organizational policies and practices aimed at social equity, we can all benefit from efforts to address the impact of racism on health, making this community a better place for everyone to live, work, learn, and play.

To learn more, hear from Dr. Choucair, as he presents “Advancing Health? It’s about the Mind, the Body, and the Community” at the third formal talk in our Community Grand Rounds series. The event will take place at 6:30 p.m. on July 17 at the Howard Center for Performing Arts at Andrews University.

Lynn Todman, PhD, is executive director of population health at Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph, where she also serves on the City Commission. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leadership Fellow.