The determinants of health

Using information design to visually communicate all the factors that affect our health

Information Design | Public Health | Web


I researched and synthesized literature in a short amount of time to produce an information visualization on the social determinants of health, leading to its installation and use at dozens of major health organizations and academic institutes.

I executed on all literature review and information visualization. I also designed its web presence and co-developed it with an engineer colleague.


1 month | 7/2016 - 8/2016




Clinical care is the current focus of our healthcare system, but only accounts for 11% of our overall health outcomes.

Edwin Choi, Careplans illustration, 2016

We are more than our hospital visits and blood draws. Healthcare policy and services need to incorporate an individual's entire living situation and life experience to drive overall quality of health. All of these factors are the determinants of health.

Unfortunately, attempts to communicate a comprehensive view of all determinants into a single visualization to educate the public have been nonexistant.


Determinants of Health’s product goal was to communicate a research driven and visually engaging view of the factors that impact health.

  • Include a comprehensive view of all determinants.
  • Validate the content with health experts in the field to ensure accuracy.
  • Download and use of the Determinants of Health by several health professionals in the field.

Determinants of Health’s business goal was to disseminate the visual to the larger healthcare industry.

  • Creation of a public facing website for the Determinants of Health.
  • Use of the Determinants of Health in at least one major healthcare organization.

The resulting product should serve as a vehicle within health organizations to drive the concept that health is a holistic measurement of an individual’s entire life and experience.

The Determinants of Health visualization installed within the MITRE Corporation.


I first explored major health organization websites for information on the determinants but quickly found that a standard list of determinants did not exist. Surprised to find so much variability, I changed my focus to more academic literature. I wanted to get to the source to ensure that for all determinants I did include, they were as evidence-driven as possible.

I conducted a literature review of publications from 8 different major health organizations. 1-8

I documented these efforts by summarizing key points and patterns from each publication, which led me to the following insights:

With such variability in the primary sources, I decided to use the most developed model I found among the literature (Institute of Medicine 7) to inform much of the organizational structure and initial list of determinants.

To address the variability in the estimated correlation of each determinant category to health, the arithmetic mean of estimates from 6 different major health organizations were used (WHO, HHS, among others) 9-15


I found 95 unique determinants within the literature.

I created several sketches exploring how these could be represented. Based on informal feedback from several design and engineer colleagues, I found that a radiating circular representation appeared the most understandable for communicating the data.

There was high engagement in seeing the determinants in a web-like manner, which I noticed tended to prompt discussions on how the determinants connected and influenced each other.

“How are these determinants measured?”

This was one of the questions that surfaced again and again in this early phase from my viewers. For future iterations, I decided to include sources showing how quantitative and qualitative data on many of the determinants could be collected.

This latest version shows an aggregated list of all determinants based on my literature review. 1-8

To ensure further content accuracy, I set up feedback meetings with 5 population health researchers and primary care clinicians by reaching out to several institutions including my alma mater, the University of Washington.

I wanted viewers to take away information at a glance, but also to continually learn with longer viewings.

I designed the visualization to show major categories of health, but also for these categories to continually break into increasing granularity as the viewer moves to the outer circles of the visual.

Detail of the determinants of health visualization.

I designed and co-developed a web feature for the Determinants of Health.

To further push dissemination of the visual, I decided to open source the visualization online to further drive its use. It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution v3, and available for download on GitHub. Detailed methodology and references are available at

The next step is to make it interactive.

A comment I heard from several SMEs was “is there an interactive version of this?” There was a need for taking it to a level of personalized exploration that mapped additional information on top of the determinants.

For example, highlighting close connections across determinants to show level of correlations, or, slicing the view of the determinants based on preferences like viewing the determinants of lifespan, or the determinants of pediatrics.

Another direction is to map the future health record onto the determinants.

By mapping the data elements of emerging standards such as FHIR and the Standard Health Record onto the determinants of health, the visualization can help lead future health services and data schemas towards a direction where health is not viewed merely through medical data, but through a combination of social, environmental, behavioral, genetic, and biological data.


Determinants of Health’s product goal was to communicate a research driven and visually engaging view of the factors that impact health.

Determinants of Health’s business goal was to disseminate the visual to the larger healthcare industry.

Installed at Human Services Research Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Iora Health, MITRE Corporation, Sidewalk Labs, Dell Medical Design Institute for Health, among dozens of other healthcare organizations.

2018 CUGH conference in New York City

2018 SXSW in Austin, TX


  1. NCHHSTP Social Determinants of Health. (2014). Retrieved March 14, 2016:
  2. The determinants of health. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2016:
  3. Social Determinants of Health. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2016:
  4. Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2016:
  5. Schroeder, S. A. (2007). We Can Do Better — Improving the Health of the American People. New England Journal of Medicine N Engl J Med,357(12), 1221-1228.
  6. The Relative Contribution of Multiple Determinants to Health Outcomes. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2016:
  7. Capturing social and behavioral domains and measures in electronic health records: Phase 2. (2014). Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press.
  8. Gruszin, S., & Jorm, L. (2010, December). Public Health Classifications Project (Rep.). Retrieved March 15, 2016, from New South Wales Department of Health website:
  9. DHHS, Public Health Service. “Ten Leading Causes of Death in the United States.” Atlanta (GA): Bureau of State Services, July 1980
  10. J.M.McGinnis and W.H.Foege. “Actual Causes of Death in the United States.” JAMA 270, No. 18 (1993):2207-12
  11. J.M.McGinnis et al, “The Case for More Active Policy Attention to Health Promotion.” Health Affairs 21, no.2 (2002):78-93
  12. A.Mokdad et al. “Actual Causes of Death in the United States 2000.” JAMA 291, no.10 (2004):1238-45
  13. G.Danaei et al, “The Preventable Cuases of Death in the United States: Comparative Risk Assessment of Dietary, Lifestyle, and Metabolic Risk Factors.” PLoS Medicine 6, no. 4 (2009):e1000058
  14. World Health Organization, Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to Selected Major Risks, Geneva: WHO, 2009
  15. B. Booske et al., “Different Perspectives for Assigning Weights to Determinants of Health.” County Health Rankings Working Paper. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 2010