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Educ Health (Abingdon). 2000;13(3):317-28.

Social determinants of (un)healthy behaviors.

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  • 1Department of Community & Preventive Medicine, University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry, NY 14642, USA.


Medical education has historically relied on the rational choice model as a vehicle for promoting health behavior change, and has largely overlooked the powerful relationships between social class and health behaviors. The rational choice model, which assumes that people can choose to pursue behaviors that are needed for their health, has some clinical utility, especially in some circumstances, but it runs the risk of missing key sources of influence and of blaming the victim. The biopsychosocial model provides an alternative basis for teaching about health behavior change. Health behavior needs to be understood in a broad social context, in which social class is recognized as playing a large part in shaping many people's health behaviors through multiple pathways, including limited opportunities for self-fulfillment, financial constraints, health beliefs, self-efficacy, stress, and social support. In addition to highlighting the limitations of the rational choice model, we illustrate how to integrate the socio-cultural context into teaching about behavior change. Specific curricular suggestions include exercises for: (1) increasing students' awareness of their own biases regarding unhealthy behaviors and individual responsibility for change; (2) enhancing knowledge of social factors that impact health; (3) building advocacy skills; (4) learning from patients; and (5) practicing counseling skills through role-plays.

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