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Social, Cultural Dimensions of Health Explored

By Susan Persons

The first NIH-wide conference on the role that social and cultural factors play in health and disease was recently held in the Natcher conference center. Organized by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and 10 institutes and offices, the conference — Toward Higher Levels of Analysis: Progress and Promise in Research on Social and Cultural Dimensions of Health — drew more than 800 scientists representing multiple disciplines. The 2-day conference featured 34 speakers.

NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein opened the conference by expressing the commitment of NIH to understanding social and cultural factors and their importance to health, especially with regard to elimination of health disparities.

"Research on social and cultural factors is a vital part of our efforts to understand health disparities and critical to understanding the etiology of health and illness in general," she said. Deviating from her notes, she commented, "There is more to health and life than the genome. This conference puts the entire activities of the NIH — biomedical, behavioral, and social science — into context."

Explaining in more detail why NIH needs and wants social science research, former OBSSR director Dr. Norman B. Anderson observed: "Understanding health from multiple levels of analysis, including the social/environmental, behavioral/psychological, organ systems, cellular and molecular — is absolutely necessary to accelerate advances in health. When I first came to direct the OBSSR 5 years ago, the leaders at NIH did not fully understand behavioral and social science research and how it related to the overall mission of NIH. The social sciences are central — not peripheral — to NIH's mission, and hence, the historical significance of this conference...Our time has come.

"Although the ultimate goal is to ensure that NIH funds ample research at all levels of analysis, the purpose of this conference is to highlight research at the social and cultural level. This field is very complex and we must continue to have strong discipline-specific research. However, some of us also need to become 'translators,' and develop cross-disciplinary models and theories that will yield a more comprehensive understanding of health outcomes," Anderson said.

The first day of the conference focused on understanding social and cultural constructs and processes operating at multiple levels including the interpersonal, neighborhood and community. The second day addressed the social and cultural factors and processes in prevention and treatment, as well as health services, global health, and health justice and ethical issues. A report containing the research recommendations from the conference will be available for comment on the OBSSR web site in Fall 2000. The entire conference can be viewed via the Internet at under the "Past Events" section. To obtain a copy of the conference program and research abstracts for each presentation, call Maria Smith at (301) 315-9000 ext. 511.

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