Abstract Enrolled patients at the free clinic in Dunedin, New Zealand were not just financially poor, but also vulnerable. Large social inequalities are present in the United States and New Zealand. The literature on vulnerability originates predominantly from sociology and public health. This commentary discusses the concept of vulnerability within clinical practice, and makes a case for the improved recognition of patient vulnerability. Vulnerability arises from an individual's susceptibility to harm and their exposure to risks and negative events. Biographical factors commonly regarded as social vulnerability characteristics such as homelessness, teenage parenthood, and childhood abuse do not necessarily lead to negative health and other outcomes because of a direct, causal effect, but because they are indicative of more upstream adversities. Health professionals should address vulnerability not just during clinical encounters, but also at an institutional and policy level.


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