While physicians acknowledge that the social determinants of health can impact outcomes from medical care, some may feel that trying to address factors such as homelessness, food insecurity, or lack of ready access to transportation or pharmacy services is just not part of the doctor’s job. A majority of 621 physicians surveyed in the summer of 2017 by Salt Lake City–based health care intelligence firm Leavitt Partners say they are neither capable of nor responsible for addressing such issues.1
But that view may become unsustainable as the U.S. health care system continues to advance toward value- and population-based models of health care and as evidence mounts that social factors are important contributors to costly outcomes, such as avoidable hospital readmissions or emergency room visits. A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that at least 40% of health outcomes are the result of social and economic factors, while only 20% can be attributed to medical care.2
“This is a hot topic – getting a lot of attention these days,” said hospitalist and care transitions expert Ramon Jacobs-Shaw, MD, MPA, regional medical officer for CareMore Health, a California-based physician-led health delivery organization and subsidiary of Anthem. “If you go around the country, some doctors still see social factors as the realm of the social worker. But large health care organizations are coming to recognize that social determinants are huge contributors to the health of their members and to the outcomes of their care.”
Hospitalists could be the natural providers to delve into the specific psychosocial aspects of their patients’ lives, or try to figure out how those factors contribute to health care needs, Dr. Jacobs-Shaw said. They typically confront such issues while the patient is in the hospital bed, but what are the steps that led to the hospitalization in the first place? What will happen after the patient is discharged?
“For example, if patients lack transportation, how can they get to their follow-up medical appointment in the primary care office in order to manage their diabetes? If you can’t follow up with them, their diabetes could get out of control, with complications as a result, such as an infected wound,” he said. Another big issue is access to affordable medications. “CareMore has pharmacists embedded on our care teams. They try to figure out the best medicine for the patient but at the lowest cost. They meet individually with patients and do medication counseling, particularly for those with polypharmacy issues.”
Making health care more equitable
Dr. Jacobs-Shaw has long held a personal interest in issues of inclusiveness, diversity, and how to make health care more equitable for historically underserved groups. Asking how to have a bigger impact on these issues is what brought him, after 13 years as a hospitalist on the East Coast, to CareMore, a company that has made addressing social needs central to its care model. “In California, where I am based, we are a wrap-around for patients who are covered by Medicare Advantage plans. We are whatever the patient needs us to be.”
He oversees a group of hospitalists, dubbed extensivists, who provide advanced patient care and chronic disease management. In the extensivist model, physicians and advanced practice nurses provide comprehensive and coordinated care to patients with complex medical issues, taking their scope of practice beyond the hospital into homes, post-acute care facilities, and other settings, with a focus on keeping patients healthier and reducing readmission.3
“Our patients get access to extra services and resources, some of which are available at our care centers – which are one-stop outpatient facilities. We also focus on a lot of things physicians didn’t historically think were within their wheelhouse. Hospitalists deal with these kinds of issues every day, but may not label them as social determinants of health,” Dr. Jacobs-Shaw said. He emphasized that hospitalists should realize that they are not powerless to address these issues, working in partnership with other groups in and out of the hospital. They should also know that health care payers increasingly are dedicating resources to these issues.
“We just started trying to address homelessness through a pilot in Orange County, working with nonprofit organizations and philanthropy to offer a transitional site of care for our patients who are being discharged from the hospital and have housing insecurity issues, to get them transitioned into more secure housing,” Dr. Jacobs-Shaw said. CareMore also has a transportation collaborative that offers no-cost, nonemergency transportation to medical appointments. “That’s meeting them where they are at, based on an assessment of their needs and resources.”
What are social determinants?
The social determinants of health – social, environmental, and other nonmedical factors that contribute to overall health status and medical need – have been defined by the World Health Organization as: “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.” That is a broad complex of overlapping social and systems issues, but it provides a context for a broader understanding of the patient’s health and response to medical interventions.
Socioeconomic status is a huge determinant. Level of education may be more important than income if the person lacks the health literacy to navigate the system and access needed care. Housing instability may include poor sanitation, substandard dwellings, or unsafe neighborhoods – all of which can affect a person’s well-being. Environmental health may include compromised air quality – which can impact pulmonary health. Other issues include access to employment and child care, utility needs, and interpersonal violence.
A 2014 paper in Annals of Internal Medicine found that residence within a disadvantaged neighborhood was a factor in hospital readmission rates as often as was chronic pulmonary disease.4 Aon social determinants of health by the National Institute for Health Care Management notes that patients with food insecurity are 2.4 times more likely to go to the emergency room, while those with transportation needs are 2.6 times more likely.5
What can health care leaders do to better equip their clinicians and teams to help patients deal with this array of complex needs? Intermountain Healthcare, based in Salt Lake City, spearheaded in 2018 the development of the Alliance for the Determinants of Health, starting in the communities of Ogden and St. George, Utah. The Alliance seeks to promote health, improve access to care, and decrease health care costs through a charitable contribution of $12 million over 3 years to seed collaborative demonstration projects.
Lisa Nichols, assistant vice president for community health at Intermountain, said that, while hospitalists were not directly involved in planning the Alliance, hospitalists and ED physicians have become essential to the patient-screening process for health and social needs.
“We met with hospitalists, emergency departments, and hospital administrators, because we wanted their feedback on how to raise awareness of the social needs of patients,” she said. “They have good ideas. They see the patients who come in from the homeless shelters.”
Other hospitals are subsidizing apartments for homeless patients being discharged from the hospital. CommonSpirit Health, the new national Catholic health care organization formed by the 2019 merger of Dignity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives, has explored how to help create and sustain affordable housing in the communities it serves. Investments like this have inspired others, such as Kaiser Permanente, to get involved in supporting housing initiatives.6