Teaching Social Determinants of Health Through Mini-Service Learning Experiences

Publication ID Published Volume
9056 December 7, 2011 7


The social determinants are recognized as important contributors to the health of individuals and populations. Social determinants include environmental factors such as air quality and housing, socioeconomic status, and educational attainment. Patient-centered physicians recognize how a patient's social context influences their lives, impacts the choices their patients are able to make, and in turn affects the clinicians' management.

Field experiences with under-served populations provide excellent opportunities for medical students to learn in the real world setting about the social determinants, particularly when constructed in a service-learning framework (preparation, service, post-service reflection).

While service-learning traditionally includes a longitudinal relationship between the learner and the experience, we have found impressive results through a 'mini-service learning experience' consisting of a one-time 3-4 hour field experience. This experience when combined with preparation and reflection has helped to cement the concepts and importance of the ‘social determinants’ in ways that readings, in-class activities, or lecture presentations have difficulty accomplishing. A mini-service learning opportunity for an entire class of students (145 at the author's institution) requires a degree of work, but much less organizational work than a standard service learning would require. In this way a short service learning experience, while likely limited in its impact, is a reasonable option for faculty interested in introducing learners to the importance and relevance of social determinants.

The mini-service learning experience embedded in the larger course, Social Influences on Health, is highly rated by students as among the most useful components of the course. The mini-service learning experience brings the course content to life and provides a higher level of relevancy to medical students.


Fredrick N. Teaching social determinants of health through mini-service learning experiences. MedEdPORTAL Publications. 2011;7:9056. http://doi.org/10.15766/mep_2374-8265.9056

Educational Objectives

  1. To be able to develop a mini-service learning field experience within the setting of a formal course that engages students in the social determinants of health.
  2. To recall the key concepts of the Social Determinants.
  3. To recall the key components of Service Learning.
  4. To describe the value of field experience in teaching the social determinants of health.
  5. To describe several steps in setting up a mini-service learning field experience.
  6. To recognize some potential pitfalls and problems to setting up a mini-service learning field experience.


  • Service, Field Experience, Social Determinants, Social Conditions, Social Environment, Health Equity Research

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ISSN 2374-8265