The healthcare industry is constantly looking for new technologies, strategies, and data that can be used to improve care and benefit patient outcomes. The desire for more targeted, value-based care has increased the demand for patient information, even if the data comes from non-traditional data sources.
There’s also a growing understanding of the impact economic and social factors have on an individual’s health. These social determinants of health (SDOH) may be the key to improved care as well as reduced healthcare costs.
What are Social Determinants of Health?
Any non-medical element that can influence a person’s health is considered a social determinant of health, like conditions in which patients are born, work, and live. Social determinants of health are placed into six categories:
- Environment: Housing, transportation, zip code, walkability, parks, safety
- Education: Language, literacy, vocational training, higher education, early education
- Economic Stability: Income, employment, support, debt, expenses, medical bills
- Food: Hunger and access to healthy food options
- Community/Social: Support systems, social integration, community engagement, stress, discrimination
- Healthcare: Coverage, quality of care, provider availability, linguistic/cultural competency
Benefits of Targeted Care
Social and environmental factors have a larger influence on patient outcomes than one might expect. Data shows that only 1 out of 5 patient outcomes are purely the result of clinical care and services. An overwhelming 4 out of 5 outcomes are determined by social determinants and other behavioral factors.
However, healthcare providers can successfully improve outcomes by leveraging data like social determinants of health. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Unemployed or low-income individuals often find it difficult to maintain proper access to care. If physicians are aware of financial hardship, they can seek alternative drugs or prescribe generic options to lower costs for these patients.
Education level influences health literacy, and many patients struggle to understand their ailments or how treatments might improve their wellbeing. Written and verbal communication can be adjusted to ensure patients better understand treatments, conditions, medications, and more. Alternative communication options or additional resources can also be used to properly engage with patients.
Loneliness is an often overlooked health threat that can lead to cognitive decline and an increased risk of several conditions, like depression or cardiovascular disease. Having a better understanding of a patient’s social network can help care teams position them with proper services and support groups.
Social determinants of health have proven to be extremely beneficial, but there have been some challenges that threaten widespread use.
The first challenge comes from how social determinants of health are recorded. This information can sometimes go uncollected or, if it is collected, it may be spread across disparate systems. Integrating and leveraging all this data can be very challenging, so it’s often too difficult to properly utilize it to make care decisions.
Additionally, there’s the problem of who will collect all this important data. Shared tools that cover social determinants of health don’t exist at the moment, so it’s near impossible to ensure they can be leveraged by multiple healthcare providers.
There’s also the question of consent. Do patients want healthcare and social organizations to gather and store data about their lives, even if it could benefit their health?
Social determinants of health can be extremely useful for health organizations, but they won’t become beneficial to patient outcomes until the right strategies and technologies are in place.