Executive Summary

What Do We Know? Key Findings from 50 Years of Medical Sociology

In order to reduce social health disparities in the U.S., new policies must promote change for individuals, neighborhoods and society.

Fifty years of research is the subject of a historic supplement to the American Sociological Association’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB). Eleven articles uncover the social dimensions of health and health care in the United States. Two themes emerge: 1) socioeconomic status and race determine health outcomes in the U.S. and 2) the current health care system is inefficient.

Katherine J. Rosich and Janet R. Hankin outline the 11 articles found in the JHSB supplement. There is a brief introduction, followed by statistics that demonstrate the “vastly changed landscape of health in 2010”; a subsequent section highlights the “unique contributions of sociological research to health and health care,” and is followed by a brief summary of each article. Rosich and Hankin touch on the policy implications of medical research in sociology.

Key Highlights:

  • Phelan, Link, and Tehranifar: The fundamental causes theory states that social groups who control certain resources (e.g., money, education, social connections) are better able to avoid disease and illness.
  • Williams and Sternthal: In 2000, mortality rates for African Americans were similar to rates experienced by White Americans in the 1950s.
  • Casper and Morrison: New pills, devices and technologies can remake the human body; technological progress has transformed health care.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 advanced the cause of universal health coverage. The elimination of health disparities, however, remains a distant goal. Medical sociologists will continue to seek solutions that ensure the good health of all Americans.