The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for many individuals, including frontline healthcare workers. Although the number of new cases has decreased over the past couple weeks, the virus outbreak is still affecting numerous Americans, especially financially. A recent report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that:

  • More than one in six adults (17.4 percent) reported that they or someone in their household had experienced a loss of employment income in the past four weeks.
  • More than half (50.9 percent) of adults reported difficulty paying for usual household expenses in the past 7 days, and 30.5 percent used credit cards or loans to meet household spending needs.
  • Five percent of adults had no confidence in their ability to make next month’s housing payment (across renters and owners), and 8.8% reported food insufficiency in their household.

Unfortunately, there are factors beyond finances that affect some individuals’ access to healthcare. Defined as social determinants of health (SDOH), they are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age and circumstances that are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels.

HIMSS lists the five factors that determine the health of a population as biologic, behavioral, social, physical and access to health services. Examples of SDOH include:

  • Safe housing, transportation and neighborhoods
  • Racism, discrimination and violence
  • Education, job opportunities and income
  • Access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities
  • Polluted air and water
  • Language and literacy skills

Methods for Reducing Health Disparities

Focusing on SDOH is an essential part of improving health and reducing health disparities. In fact, research shows that SDOH can be more important than healthcare or lifestyle choices in influencing health, with clinical care accounting for only 20 percent of health outcomes. Studies have found that individual behavior, often spurred by SDOH, accounts for up to 40 percent of the risks for premature death

A Deloitte Center for Health Solutions survey found that 88 percent of the 300 hospitals and health systems it polled were committed to addressing social determinants and screening patients for social needs. However, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that not many hospitals and physician practices screen their patients for the five primary areas included in SDOH. According to the study, only 24 percent of hospitals and 16 percent of physician practices reported screening in the following: food insecurity, housing instability, utility needs, transportation needs and interpersonal violence.

There are ways for healthcare providers striving to zero in on SDOH to improve health outcomes, reduce emergency department and inpatient care visits, decrease downstream medical costs and maximize clinical quality. One is implementing technology solutions, such as analytics tools, EHR integration and population health management

The technology utilized for SDOH must promote effective communication between providers and patients. Advantages of effective healthcare communication include improved quality of care, enhanced patient experience, reduced cost of care. improved patient satisfaction scores, decreased stress and burnout for clinicians, reduced complaints and readmissions and improved staff teamwork and collaboration. 

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that physician practices attempting to address SDOH in primary care develop a practice culture that values health equity and a team-based approach for addressing these factors.  AAFP notes that developing the health-equity-focused practice culture can be achieved by:

  1. Understanding a patient’s community
  2. Understanding how SDOH impact health outcomes
  3. Addressing implicit bias
  4. Building cultural competence and proficiency
  5. Offering health literacy and interpretation services

According to AAFP, to develop a team approach to address social determinants of health, practices should:

  1. Identify opportunities to address SDOH
  2. Evaluate patient and workflow
  3. Define a new system
  4. Identify barriers, and plan for change
  5. Measure and celebrate success
  6. Finalize a team-based implementation plan

At RingRx, we understand that it can be challenging for healthcare providers to help overcome the SDOH barriers some patients face. That’s why our HIPAA-compliant, healthcare-specific solutions are designed to simplify communication between physician practices and hospitals and health systems and their patients. Contact us to learn more!