The Social Determinants of Health: Application to Developed and Developing Asia

Global health disparities were the topic of a special event November 11th co-sponsored by the Asia Health Policy Program of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the Center for Health Policy / Primary Care and Outcomes Research.

Sir Michael Marmot, internationally renowned Principal Investigator of the Whitehall Studies of British civil servants (investigating explanations for the striking inverse social gradient in morbidity and mortality), spoke about research on the social determinants of health and taking action to promote policy change. Pointing out the extreme disparities in life expectancy for peoples in different parts of the world – including the “haves” and “have-nots” within the high-income world – he presented an overview of “Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health” ( That report was commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) and released last year; Sir Marmot served as the Chair of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health.

Criticizing those who justify initiatives in global health solely on economic grounds, Sir Marmot argued that addressing the social determinants of health is a matter of social justice.

He presented data and discussed the report’s three primary recommendations: 1. Improve daily living conditions; 2. Tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources; and 3. Measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action.
Stating that the World Health Assembly resolution on the social determinants of health was only meaningful as a first “baby step,” Marmot urged the audience to consider how research and policy advocacy can address the social determinants of health so that all individuals can lead flourishing lives.

Examples from Asia include

  • the high risk of maternal mortality (1 in 8) in Afghanistan;
  • the steep gradient in under-5 mortality in India (with the rate almost three times higher for the poorest quintile than for the wealthiest quintile);
  • less than half of women in Bangladesh have a say in decision-making about their own health care;
  • a large share of the world’s population living on less than US$2 a day reside in Asia;
  • social protection systems like pensions are possible in lower and middle-income countries, with Thailand as an example;
  • more can be done to address the millions impoverished by catastrophic health expenditures, such as in southeast Asia; and
  • conflict-ridden areas and internally displaced people, such as in Pakistan and Myanmar, are among the most vulnerable.

He also responded to questions about the role of freedom and liberty in social development – contrasting India and China – and commented on the peculiar contours of the US health reform debate.

Professor Marmot closed by noting that, in exhorting everyone to strive for social justice and close the gaps in health inequalities all too apparent in our 21st century world, he hoped he was not too much like Don Quixote, going around “doing good deeds but with people all laughing at him.” 
Professor Sir Michael Marmot MBBS, MPH, PhD, FRCP, FFPHM, FMedSci, is Director of the International Institute for Society and Health and MRC Research Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London. In 2000 he was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen for services to Epidemiology and understanding health inequalities.