Author: Annemieke Groenenboom
Advice on a healthy lifestyle is important, but not the sole key to reducing health disparities. It’s the societal issues, such as poverty, that we need to address. ‘Recognize the issues and seek new forms of collaboration,’ says Karien Stronks (Amsterdam UMC). She discusses ‘how’ during the Preventive Health Conference.
“People in lower socioeconomic groups live an average of 7 years less than people in higher socioeconomic groups and become ill up to 25 years earlier. They often face less favorable living conditions, such as financial stress, an uncertain housing situation, or physically demanding work. Factors like income, education level, and migration background are the most influential. In simple terms, the higher up the social ladder, the greater the chance of a healthy life,” explains Stronks, professor of Public Health at Amsterdam UMC.
“Although we often identify these living conditions as the primary cause of health disparities, we still frequently seek solutions through an individual approach. For instance, guiding people to adopt a healthy lifestyle. However, many studies show that this approach is not sustainable,” says Stronks. “By doing so, you disregard the external influences to which people in lower socioeconomic groups are exposed. Someone living unhealthily due to financial stress gains little from lifestyle advice if it’s not accompanied by financial assistance.”
“Experts also tend to develop too many interventions that primarily benefit people in higher socioeconomic groups, where the conditions are much more favorable. Think of supplementary forms that are only shared in Dutch or contain complex language. With this, we (unintentionally) exacerbate the problem. Therefore, we need to take into account the living conditions of people in lower socioeconomic groups more, or even better, improve the conditions themselves, for instance by providing more financial security or creating a safe and healthy living environment.”
A Different Perspective
Stronks: “Many experts are involved with people in lower socioeconomic groups. Think of governments when it comes to social security, private entities concerning a healthy food environment, or schools, public health services (GGDs), and parents who have a direct impact on the well-being of young individuals. Many of them attend the Preventive Health Conference, and I challenge them to view their own work through the lens of health disparities. What are you doing? What does your approach achieve for people with health disparities, or does it mainly benefit those in higher socioeconomic groups? And how can it be improved?”
“By first reflecting on your own role and acknowledging the complexity of the issue, you can arrive at more effective solutions. We need each other’s support for this,” Stronks argues. “From your own position, you only see a small part of the whole, while we are all part of a system. It’s only when you recognize the interplay between all the factors influencing the lives of people in lower socioeconomic groups that you know which levers to turn.”
“We applied such a systemic approach in the LIKE project aimed at reducing health disparities among children aged 10-14. We conducted an analysis of environmental factors, their interactions, and how they contribute to unhealthy behaviors. This allowed us to pinpoint the root of the problem and then work on solutions. Based on this, we developed strategies to promote healthy behaviors in various parts of the system.”
Stronks concludes: “I don’t have the illusion that health disparities will completely disappear, but together, we can certainly reduce them. I hope for fruitful discussions during the Conference, but also for new insights and collaborations.”
Preventive Health Conference 2023
Want to hear more from Karien Stronks? Join us on the 7th of december for our annual Preventive Heath Conference, with insights from 20+ brilliant speakers, interdisciplinary discussions, invaluable insights, and strategies to promote effective preventive health practices. Join keynote speaker Karien Stronks as she delves into the need for innovative methodologies and the essential role of municipal-level collaboration with stakeholders.