Wayne State University

Wayne State University researcher serves as guest editor of special issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior - Anniversary issue compiles major insights from 50 years of medical sociology research

A Wayne State University researcher is the senior editor of a special 50th anniversary issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB), highlighting the major themes and insights of 50 years of medical sociology research.

Published by the American Sociological Association, JHSB examines medical organizations and institutions, and the actions and interactions of health care professionals in the context of society. In honor of the journal’s 50th anniversary, the Robert Wood Foundation provided funding for an extra issue titled “What Do We Know? Key Findings from 50 Years of Medical Sociology.”

Janet Hankin, Ph.D., professor and Department of Sociology interim chair in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and resident of Huntington Woods, Mich., was co-editor of the extra issue along with Eric Wright of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Hankin and Katherine J. Rosich, a senior policy analyst based in Washington, D.C., wrote the issue’s executive summary.

The 11 articles in the issue, including research from Harvard University, UCLA and Indiana University-Bloomington, highlight the major findings of medical sociology on health and health care along with recommendations for policy reform. “These studies looked at the vastly changed landscape of health care in the United States,” said Hankin. “Our goal was to understand what works, what doesn’t work and what we can do better.”

Several studies in the issue focused on the cost of health care in the United States. Data from 2006 shows that the U.S. spends a substantially greater share of its gross domestic product on health care than comparable Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, without achieving better health outcomes. The issue also highlights an increase in public access to health-related information, a trend yielding mixed results. “In terms of complementary and alternative medicine, patients are more aware than ever of their options,” Hankin said. “However, information is also acquired from direct-to-consumer advertising, a practice that has raised some ethical concerns over the profit-driven nature of pharmaceutical companies.”

Another study, done by Columbia University scholars, investigates one of the oldest and most critical questions in medical sociology – why the poor and other disadvantaged members of society continue to have worse health and die much younger than the more privileged members. One explanation is that on average, people living in poverty have fewer resources and are exposed to more environmental stressors such as dangerous neighborhoods and social isolation. These factors in turn cause people to choose unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and drinking as a means to cope with stress. “It’s hard to eliminate poverty, but we can intervene to help people cope with the stressors in their environment,” Hankin said. “This includes policies that reduce residential segregation, curtail crime, improve education and provide opportunities for recreation and access to fresh food.”

The issue provides evidence of the benefits of universal health care and preventive medicine. “We are the only industrialized country in the world that does not have universal health insurance,” Hankin said. “There is a fear in people that if you provide health care for everyone, the system will go bankrupt, but that’s not the case. If fewer people suffer from chronic health problems, they will be able to work and produce more. And with a system geared toward preventive care, health problems will be caught earlier and will cost less to treat.”

Hankin said the hope behind the extra issue of JHSB is to provide recommendations for policy makers as well as inspire future studies that can further pinpoint problem areas and bring about change. “With the continuing concern over health care in the U.S., there is a need for credible, empirical research that is widely available to the public and policy experts,” she said. “This issue provides a foundation for understanding the incredibly complex issues behind the successes and failures of U.S. health care and what we can do to improve it.”

To view the issue, visit: http://hsb.sagepub.com/content/51/1_suppl.

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information on research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.