Health is shaped by more than just an annual visit to a primary care clinic or wellness checkup. Just like granite or limestone is gradually shaped by the forces that surround it—wind, water, and other sediment—people’s health is strongly influenced by social, economic, and geographic factors. These factors are called the social determinants of health.
Only around 11 percent of positive outcomes are directly tied to clinical interactions. That’s not to say that clinicians and care teams aren’t vitally important for the future of health care within the United States. However, if providers want to see better outcomes and fewer costs, medical professionals need to be able to influence more health equity factors.
As it stands right now, many children and adults have a slim shot at preventing chronic illnesses and other costly diseases. Taking a patient’s social determinants of health into consideration could drastically improve the current state of the American health care system.
What Are the Social Determinants of Health?
The social determinants of health are any and all factors that aren’t included in a clinical diagnosis, but still prevent people from leading healthy lives.
This includes socioeconomic status, education, physical environment (such as housing), and neighborhoods or geographic regions. These determinants of health also include adverse events experienced in childhood and mental health.
In fact, social circumstances impact more health outcomes than biology and genetics. This means that the social determinants of health really matter if public health is going to experience health equity throughout local communities.
Why Social Determinants Matter for Better Population Health
Health care is discovering that prescriptions, care plans, and diagnoses only go so far in helping patients improve their well-being. A person’s housing, for instance, may aggravate rheumatoid arthritis symptoms or chronic back pain, resulting in limited progress despite physical therapy or prescriptions.
In other words, the social determinants of health affect a person’s ability to improve their well-being outside of issues that physicians can treat. But with public health services and support from community organizations or family members, some patients have addressed these determinants and thereby improve other diagnosable (and seemingly unrelated) symptoms.
To complicate matters further, the standards of care that most clinicians follow aren’t able to address most social determinants of health. Care teams, consequently, are only able to treat a small part of what actually makes a person healthy.
As a result, patients end up in an endless cycle of appointments, prescriptions, phone calls, and extra expenses simply because many providers aren’t willing or able to address the whole person.
High-Cost Social Determinants of Health
Even though many patients are impacted by the social determinants of health, there are some groups that have poorer population health outcomes due to these factors. For instance, marginalized or minority communities often have fewer options when it comes to health services.
Other communities, such as socio-disadvantaged communities, are more likely to have poor health outcomes. It isn’t uncommon for inner-city areas to be classified as urban food deserts, or areas that have limited access to affordable, nutritious food options like fruits and vegetables.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, are rural communities. As health systems have merged and put smaller hospitals and providers out of business, members of many rural areas have limited access to medical advice and treatment.
Without social support and accessible health care options, many treatable conditions never receive care. Consequently, issues such as small infections soon get out of hand, causing reduced quality of life or even fatality.
What’s Really at Stake
Care teams can treat and triage patients in a standard, unified way. But if the whole person isn’t addressed, patients may never get better health outcomes. Providers aren’t able to fully address all of the factors that keep patients from proactively caring about their own health.
How can care team members change the fact that a patient with diabetes has to work two jobs without access to fresh, healthy food options? If pizza is the only food they have access to as a convenience store employee, then that’s what they’ll consume.
When it comes to using patient relationship management as part of your care program, however, patients will receive holistic care—and get better outcomes.
If care teams and program directors don’t optimize their program to address the social determinants of health, they won’t drive the health outcomes they expect to see.
Welkin’s platform allows care teams to keep track of the social determinants each patient faces. During interactions, surveys, or assessments, care managers can follow up with these concerns and provide useful, pinpointed advice for each scenario. In addition, they can hone in on at-risk populations and contact their patients regularly.
Welkin’s program tools allow care teams to design and automate procedures that will keep these patients from slipping through the cracks. This means that team members can improve health outcomes over time while reducing costs per patient.