Healthcare & Social Change: What's the Relationship?
No part of community life exists in a vacuum. When one aspect of society changes, it affects all of modern society. A powerful example of this exists in the relationship between social change and healthcare. The way that our community addresses health problems is tied to our evolving social dynamics. Healthcare practices and the availability of healthcare have grown to more accurately reflect our populations and social structure.
Public policies have been shaped by social movements led by concerned citizens. These public policies then influence how nurses, physicians, and healthcare institutions administer care.
Vice versa—medical advancements have shaped social movements which shape public policy.
In this way, healthcare and social change go hand-in-hand—you can’t fully understand one without examining the other. This guide will explore the fundamentals of social change, as well as how social awareness impacts public health in our modern society.
What is Social Change?
Social change is not one specific action or process. Instead, the phrase social change represents the ever-present and ongoing transformations that reshape our relationship to one another.
Though social change often enters the political arena, it is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon.
A key aspect of the social change process is that it takes time. Social changes have long-lasting and profound effects on society. However, these changes may be incremental, and can be overlooked on an individual level. Although it’s not always an active change process with a clear direction, the goal of social change is always to somehow alter social norms and behavior.
In many cases, social change is a positive force in society that has beneficial consequences. Some of the most famous examples of positive social change in the United States came as the result of large social movements, including:
- The abolitionist movement
- The civil rights movement
- Women’s rights
- LGBTQ rights
Individual Change vs. Group Change
Social change is a blend of both individual and collective action. Very few individuals have the kind of influence that could change an entire culture. However, no collective action can succeed without individual support.
At its most basic level, social change arises from the way we interact with others. It is often an act of empathy, compassion, and understanding. People with different backgrounds and perspectives have to acknowledge and accept one another in order to unite behind a certain cause that benefits everyone.
Public Policy: When Social Change Becomes Official
Public policy is a term that describes a government’s response to issues facing the community. A public policy isn’t necessarily a law. It can also be:
- A rule or regulation
- A judgment
- A governmental program like disability insurance, nutritional assistance, etc.
- The decision not to take any action or create change
Public policy is important because it affects every single person in society, whether they realize it or not. Here are just a few ways that public policy impacts daily life:
- Availability of public transportation
- Shaping public education curricula and funding schools
- Health regulations that ensure clean air and water, safe food, etc.
When a social movement gains enough momentum and support, it is often addressed by updating old public policies or creating new ones. For example, social activists in the environmental justice movement helped convince the United States government to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
Public Policy and Healthcare
Like any other part of society, healthcare institutions are also affected by public policy. The way that healthcare should be financed and delivered is frequently a hot-button social issue in the United States. Public policies have been created, dismantled, and recreated to address developing needs, criticisms, and calls for healthcare reform.
Here are some examples of public policy initiatives that can directly affect healthcare institutions and the people treated by them:
- Minimum hospital stays after childbirth
- Maternity leave
- Pre-existing condition exclusions
- Availability of community clinics
- Community health data projects
- Medicare and Medicaid funding
How Social Change Shapes Health Policy
The state of healthcare is directly affected by advances in technology, better management, and medical developments. However, social movements have also had a profound effect on healthcare institutions and practices.
Health and the Housing Movement
In the past, urban movements focused on sanitation reform. This helped start the practice of regularly cleaning city streets. Their efforts were most notable in poorer areas where many people lived in small tenements. Poor living conditions contribute greatly to the spread of disease. Social energy focused on housing rights helped stop the spread of tuberculosis and lead poisoning.
Efforts like these eventually led to many health-focused public policies, such as the creation of the American Public Health Association, the Federal Housing Division of the Public Works Administration, and The Housing Act.
Health and the Substance Reform Movement
Grassroots social organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) have led to significant changes in the public perception of alcohol abuse. Similar movements have created more awareness about the abuse of prescription drugs, leading to changes in doctors’ ability to prescribe certain medications, warning labels, and more oversight of prescriptions.
Physicians and other healthcare workers played a key role in the struggle against cigarettes and other tobacco addictions. Their political resistance and campaigns against tobacco companies helped create the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, as well as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Policies like these have helped prevent risky health behaviors in youth populations.
Social Change in Healthcare
Social factors impact health. They change the way that individual healthcare workers approach their jobs, and shape the methods that healthcare institutions use to serve their communities.
Nurses Focused on Social Change
In 2019, nursing leadership from across the country met in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle to discuss the future of their profession. The main topic of focus was health disparities—social factors that contribute to greater health problems in underserved communities.
Research has proven that these social factors are a major component of an individual’s health and well-being:
- Education status
- Access to healthcare
- Social connectedness
- Food security
- Housing security
Innovative strategies have been created to change nursing curricula so that these issues are a primary concern. Nurses have also expanded their role to be advocates for social change, contributing to schools, libraries, city councils, and urban development boards. Many nurses have called for community health needs assessments that collect data and identify health disparities.
Doctors Focused on Social Change
Many doctors have advocated for an added component to their medical training that would address the social aspect of human health. According to Stat News, doctors have a long history of being advocates for social change. A famous 19th century German doctor, Rudolph Virchow, cited poverty, famine, and political corruption as the main causes of a local typhus outbreak. He went on to lead reforms that later created Germany’s universal healthcare system.
In the United States, Boston doctors led efforts to normalize health services for gay men during the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Many physicians now believe that, along with the mechanics of the human body, it is essential for doctors to learn about:
- The inner workings of the United States healthcare system
- Human rights
- Healthcare disparities
- Global health
- Advocacy skills
- Policy solutions
Social Change on an Institutional Level
Within healthcare systems, change is happening all the time. Now more than ever, those changes are being influenced by social education and collective action. Many healthcare institutions are broadly changing their approach from focusing on individual health to population-based health, informed by social factors.
Healthcare institutions are also becoming more invested in preventive care and health promotion, rather than just treatment. This change reflects the fact that social movements have identified public factors (like housing and income inequality) as main contributors to illness.
Hospitals and other healthcare institutions use new organizational models that take social conditions and community goals into account when providing care. Community-based assessments of healthcare institutions’ impact are rapidly replacing individual-based assessments. Positive, sustainable changes are being made to old structures and processes. These changes include:
- Improving communication capabilities
- Making management systems more horizontal and inclusive
- Developing participant roles for community members
- Renewing commitments to positive change
- Allocating time and resources to further learning and adjustment
- Obtaining better and more accurate patient information
- Planning more effectively for both short-term and long-term goals
How to Get Involved
Social change management is for everyone, not just a select few. However, positive social movements need the support of educated and experienced individuals in order to make real progress. Administration, organization, education, psychology, change leadership, public policy, law—all of these areas have an important role in social change. Luckily, Alliant International University has skilled faculty who educate in all of these areas of study, and more.
Alliant values inclusivity and diversity. Their teachers are dedicated to helping you make positive contributions to any industry, in any community. You can earn an undergraduate, masters, or doctorate degree at Alliant, as well as a number of professional certifications. With virtual and in-person classes and flexible scheduling, Alliant is a great place to either start or further your career.
Check out Alliant today to get a great education, real professional experience, and make a positive impact on your community.
Stat News. Future doctors should be trained to promote social change. https://www.statnews.com/2017/02/09/doctors-training-social-change/
Nurse. Nurses target health disparities to enact social change. https://www.nurse.com/blog/2019/10/08/nurses-target-health-disparities-…
Annual Reviews. Social Movements in Health. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-03191…
Southern New Hampshire University. What is Social Change and Why Should We Care? https://www.snhu.edu/about-us/newsroom/2017/11/what-is-social-change
EPA. Environmental Justice. https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice