Show Navigation

Resource Library

A new way to talk about the social determinants of health

In 2006, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a philanthropic institution dedicated to improving health and health care, embarked on four years of research and message development around the question: “how do we find a common language that will expand Americans’ views about what it means to be healthy – to include not just where health ends but also where it starts?” (p.3) The result is this readable 37-page report.  In it, the authors outline their methodology, then present seven lessons for using language to frame the social determinants of health (p. 4), and six ways to talk about the social determinants of health (p. 7). They offer definitions for terms such as “poverty” and “health disparities” (p. 8).

Within the broad spectrum of this research, the authors keep returning to the very different, “deep metaphor frames” held by Democrats and Republicans.  Strikingly, researchers found that the term “the social determinants of health” did not resonate with audiences, regardless of their political affiliation or educational background.  However, when the core concept was re-phrased using emotional, “values driven” language, it was found to be more convincing.  Other findings include: “use one strong and compelling fact” rather than two or three, and “prime audiences […] with messages they already believe” to make the new message more credible.

More information about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its work is available on their website,, where you can also find an hour-long webinar and accompanying slides based on this report.

Use this resource to:

  • Engage others in a dialogue about the social determinants of health, regardless of their political beliefs, cultural background or educational attainment
  • Reflect on the differences in how messages about the social determinants of health and health equity are received in the US and Canada
  • Get your health equity message across to policy-makers, as well as to people working at the community level

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 2010. A new way to talk about the social determinants of health

Tags: Collaboration, Communicate, Community engagement, Knowledge translation , Report/document

Sign up for our E-News

* indicates required
I would Like to Receive Email Updates on: