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Social Determinants of Health

Guide to researching Social Determinants of Health (SDOH).

What are Social Determinants of Health?

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

SDOH Domains:

  • Economic Stability
  • Education Access and Quality
  • Healthcare Access and Quality
    • E.g. disparities in maternal mortality, discriminatory diagnostic criteria, etc.
  • Neighborhood and Built Environment
    • E.g. tree equity, neighborhood amenities, environmental justice, redlining, etc. 
  • Social and Community Context

Where to Search

Information about SDOH is available all over the web and in scholarly literature. Below are a few places to search to get you started.

For help with your specific question, reach out to your subject librarian or ask your question via chat 24/7

Databases of Primarily Scholarly Literature

Databases of Primarily Grey Literature

Many current and historical methods of conducting research reinforce white supremacy and other forms of racism and inequity. Only by actively working to overcome racism do we improve our research and systems. One way to incorporate more voices from marginalized communities into your research is to seek out these voices in grey literature, but don't forget to also seek out these perspectives in scholarly literature, despite ongoing white supremacy in scholarly lit.

How to Search

Start with a Research Question

SDOH research questions are often quite broad and must be narrowed down to effectively investigate. Learn how to develop a research question.

Keywords & Controlled Vocabulary

To find information on your topic, one of the first steps is to generate a list of related keywords. Some folks use Excel or Google Docs to organize their keywords. For a concept like economic stability, a researcher may generate an initial list of keywords that looks like this: 

  • economic stability 
  • economic status 
  • living paycheck to paycheck 
  • gig economy 

Then the researcher may take a list of terms like this to a database like PubMed, separating synonymous concepts with the Boolean Operator OR:

economic stability OR economic status OR living paycheck to paycheck OR gig economy

Based on the results of an initial search, the researcher should review the results and add or modify keywords to capture more related articles on the topic of interest. In addition to keywords, the researcher should investigate whether the database has a controlled vocabulary, i.e., a set list of terms used to describe specific concepts so the database's contents can be indexed and found by those terms.


Thorough searching requires diligence with generating keywords.

Search Hedges

Hedges are standardized search strategies that can be used to help retrieve relevant articles.

Hedges may be applied to improve the recall of various levels of evidence, such as randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews/meta-analyses, and to identify clinical concepts, such as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and treatment. Hedges are also called filters, clinical queries, or optimal search strategies. They are not a guarantee of retrieving quality research; you still need to critically appraise results for quality and relevance.
University of Alabama at Birmingham Libraries


Unvalidated SDOH search by Lisa Acuff, AHIP (Feb. 2023): "social determinants"[Title/Abstract:~2]
This search using a proximity operator in PubMed retrieved 'social and structural determinants of health' and 'social and psychological determinants'; where 'social determinants' does not appear next to 'of health'; where 'health' is modified like 'social determinants of oral health' or 'social determinants of mental health'; and other variations like 'social determinants of vulnerability' or 'social determinants of racial disparities'.

Racialized and Ethnic Groups


Please note that the definition of Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) has changed over time and country income also changes over time, so the list of countries included in this filter may not match the definition of LMICs that you would like to research. You will need to manually add or remove countries to the filter as needed for your research. Reach out to your librarian for assistance.

Healthcare Disparities

Challenges of Researching SDOH

Social Determinants of Health are constantly evolving based on current research, knowledge, and understanding. The more researchers become aware of the systems of oppression and privilege that determine a portion of the population's health, the more the list of SDOH will adapt and grow.


Stephen Bezruchka, MD, MPH, Departments of Health Systems and Population Health & of Global Health, School of Public Health, University of Washington shared via the American Public Health Association (APHA) Spirit of 1848 listserv, "There are a variety of cover terms to understand the determinants of health. These include fundamental cause, economic inequality and power relationships. A group in Canada, National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, has produced some material that may be of value in discussing power's effect on health." 

Anti-Racist Research Resources