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Perceptions of Health and Health Behaviors

Posted on December 2, 2011

Yonette Thomas examines how context and perceptions about health affect health behaviors, both positive and negative.


I started out like most people on the track. I was going to medical school, and I had taken my MCATs, and I was ready to go to medical school. But I took a class out of boredom in medical anthropology, and that changed my life.

It really spoke to me, and I did this class project on something called media medicine. And, basically, it was looking at -- we see all of these commercials, television commercials, about if you take Bayer aspirin, it'll make you well in two seconds, and you'll be back out on the tennis court or doing whatever. And it really made me think about this whole notion of the sick role and perceived susceptibility and our perceptions of our own health and health behavior.

So I started to look at all of those things and think of the health belief model and the role that belief and perceptions play in how we feel about our own health.

So, needless to say, that took me on a divergent path from medical school, and I ended up doing sociology because I wanted more rigor, and I ended up doing medical sociology and demography and later ended up in epidemiology, all the while trying to understand why people behave in a certain way in regard to their health and the role that where people come from plays in that. So context. The role of family. Family perceptions play a great... has a lot of... shapes the way we think about what we can do. So family and then the communities from which we come, and I later got into this whole neighborhood context.

So a lot of what was going on with Urie Bronfenbrenner and the ecological model spoke to me, and I started to really include that more broadly in my thinking. Now, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I got involved in looking at drugs and HIV, but it was no different. How does context play a role in people's adverse health behavior? And I always saw drugs, drug abuse, as an adverse health behavior. Drug use as an adverse health behavior.

So I started a program at NIDA around the social epidemiology of drug abuse, and that led to interactions with geographers to talk about, you know, how do we track and understand context, people moving about in a particular neighborhood? Not just a static neighborhood that, well, we live here and we impact each other. But who do we interact with? Where do we move? Where do we travel? And how does that movement among people impact behavior?

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Excerpted from an interview with the researcher conducted at the 2011 NHSN Conference held in Miami, FL.


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