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Applying Syndemic Theory to Acute Illness

By: Johnny Goodley, MHI Scholar

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the geographic, racial, and economic inequities of the USA, and forced the rest of the world to acknowledge the association between biological and social processes in health. The intersection of social and biological processes in health has been the core of deciphering the mechanisms of chronic disease disparities for decades. Therefore, the application of syndemic theory can be very beneficial, if not essential to improving healthcare. Syndemic theory outlines synergistically associated grouped epidemics formed by unhealthy social conditions, and provides a strong foundation for rationalizing these complex relationships. The practice of syndemic theory in medical care, research, and health policy fixed on acute illnesses (diseases that require emergency or urgent care which can be gained and lost quickly, that have particular symptoms, and get better once they are treated) allows for insights, as acute conditions commonly indicate long-standing and complicated relationships between the things that impact one’s health.

Syndemic theory focuses on the harmful interactions between diseases and social constraints, especially in the context of the machinations of these dealings. Identifying these interactions allows for new conceptualizations of how to treat and prevent conditions. The application of syndemic theory has been revolutionary in dealing with major public health issues, likely because of its basis in medical anthropology, but has not been applied to chronic conditions until now. Syndemic Theory is based in describing disparity trends that affect communities and was applied to conditions linked to affectable behavior (ex. diet, substance use, etc.). Though I believe there is benefit in applying syndemic theory to acute conditions too because through application it may become clear that interactions between conditions are the source of complications, and if the core complications are tackled other issues can be avoided. By providing a structure of disease-disease and social condition-disease interactions, syndemic theory can improve the understanding of acute health conditions within a population and by proxy allow for scientific advances that condition specific research has not.

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