5 ways healthcare organizations can address social determinants of health
By Christopher Cheney
Healthcare providers can address social determinants of health through five approaches—awareness, adjustment, assistance, alignment, and advocacy, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Social determinants of health (SDOH) such as housing, food security, and transportation can have a pivotal impact on the physical and mental health of patients. By making direct investments in initiatives designed to address SDOHs and working with community partners, healthcare organizations can help their patients in profound ways beyond the traditional provision of medical services.
"The consistent and compelling evidence concerning how social determinants shape health has led to a growing recognition throughout the healthcare sector that improvements in overall health metrics are likely to depend—at least in part—on attention being paid to these social determinants," the National Academies report says.
The report outlines the "5As" strategies that healthcare organizations can implement to address SDOHs in the communities they serve. The strategies were developed by the National Academies' Committee on Integrating Social Needs Care into the Delivery of Healthcare to Improve the Nation's Health, Board on Health Care Services, Health and Medicine Division.
The committee says awareness should focus on identifying the social risks and assets of specific patients and populations of patients.
"On the clinical side, patients visiting healthcare organizations are increasingly being asked to answer social risk screening questions in the context of their care and care planning. In some places, screening is incentivized by payers. As part of the MassHealth Medicaid program, for instance, Massachusetts accountable care organizations now include social screening as a measure of care quality," the report says.
Instead of addressing social needs directly, healthcare organizations can pursue a strategy that focuses on adjusting clinical care to address social determinants of health.
"Many examples of adjustment strategies were identified in the literature, including the delivery of language- and literacy-concordant services; smaller doctor-patient panel sizes for cases with socially complex needs (e.g., teams caring for homeless patients in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system have panel sizes smaller than the size of other VA care teams); offering open-access scheduling or evening and weekend clinic access; and providing telehealth services, especially in rural areas," the report says.
Healthcare organizations can pursue strategies to connect patients with social needs to government and community resources.
"The literature contains descriptions of a variety of assistance activities that have been undertaken by health systems and communities. These assistance activities vary in intensity, from lighter touch (one-time provision of resources, information, or referrals) to longer and more intensive interventions that attempt to assess and address patient-prioritized social needs more comprehensively," the report says.
Intensive interventions include relationship building, comprehensive biopsychosocial needs assessments, care planning, motivational interviewing, and long-term community-based supports.
Healthcare providers can pursue an alignment strategy that assesses the social care assets in the community, organizes those assets to promote teamwork across organizations, and invests in assets to impact health outcomes.
"The committee defined alignment activities to include those undertaken by healthcare systems to understand existing social care assets in the community, organize them in such a way as to encourage synergy among the various activities, and invest in and deploy them to prevent emerging social needs and improve health outcomes," the report says.
Healthcare providers can form alliances with social care organizations to advocate for policies that promote the creation and distribution of assets or resources to address social determinants of health. For example, healthcare organizations can call for policy changes to overhaul transportation services in a community.
"In both the alignment and advocacy categories, healthcare organizations leverage their political, social, and economic capital within a community or local environment to encourage and enable healthcare and social care organizations to partner and pool resources, such as services and information, to achieve greater net benefit from the healthcare and social care services available in the community," the report says.
Implementing the five strategies
Assessing the level of existing social needs activities should be a starting point for healthcare organizations that want to address social determinants of health, the chairperson of the National Academies committee told HealthLeaders.
One of the first steps healthcare organizations can take is identifying activities they may already have underway that fit the 5As, then expand or enhance those activities through greater commitment from leadership, investment of resources into supporting infrastructure, and strengthening of engagement with patients and community stakeholders, said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, PhD, MD, MAS, professor and chair, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, UCSF School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco.
"Healthcare organizations may not have activities in all of the 5As and should use this framework to develop strategies that will work within their local context. In all cases, it is critical to be aware that addressing health-related social needs of their patients is essential to achieving goals of high quality and high-value care," she said.
"Partnerships are crucial," Bibbins-Domingo said.
"Activities in the clinical setting should be designed and implemented in a way that engages patients, community partners, frontline staff, social care workers, and clinicians in planning and evaluation, as well as in incorporating the preferences of patients and communities. Establishing linkages and communication pathways between healthcare and social service providers is critical, including personal care aides, home care aides, and others who provide care and support for seriously ill and disabled patients."
Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care editor at HealthLeaders.