Whole-Person Care Comes Full Circle

A patient who arrives at a healthcare provider’s office—whether it’s a primary care clinic or a medical center—is often bringing more than an ailing body. Human beings are multi-dimensional; they require whole-person care to nurture the body, mind, and spirit to achieve wellness.

So it makes sense that the diagnosis and treatment of physical health, mental health, behavioral health, social health, and spiritual health should overlap, as it has in past civilizations across the globe. Whole-person care has made a high-tech comeback—and it’s being gradually integrated into mainstream healthcare systems across the country.

What is whole-person care?

Whole-person care is the patient-centered optimal use of diverse healthcare resources to deliver the physical, behavioral, emotional, and social services required to improve care coordination, well-being, and health outcomes while respecting patients’ treatment choices.

The whole-person care delivery model is rooted in integrative medicine, which promotes health by nurturing the delicate equilibrium between mind, body, and spirit through evidence-based conventional and complementary treatments and services.

Rather than fight disease, integrative medicine aims to resolve dysfunction before it presents as disease. After decades of validation through clinical research, integrative Complementary Health Approaches (CHAs) — an $18 billion industry — have been welcomed into mainstream healthcare.

In 2020, 53.1% of physicians recommended at least one CHA to their patients; the AMA is promoting CHAs for pain management to help combat the opioid crisis; and the National Cancer Institute regularly conducts clinical trials on CHAs for post-cancer care.

Whole-person care leverages a wide range of specialists, as well as next-generation data sharing between those specialists, to improve case management and outcomes. Whole-person care pilot programs teach clinicians to collaborate with social services professionals and community partners to improve public health for various target populations.

According to National Approaches to Whole-person Care in the Safety Net: “The most common strategies for patient-centered, coordinated care include behavioral health integration, coordination with health home efforts, coordination with long-term care, use of non-traditional healthcare workers, and providing additional services not currently offered in standard benefit packages, such as peer support, home modifications, and non-emergency transportation.”

Whole-person care practitioners strive to promote a patient’s wellness by observing, discussing, and addressing all dimensions of a patient’s health. They combine a traditional assessment of the eleven major human organ systems (skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, lymphatic, integumentary, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive) with observations of the patient’s four-dimensional health.

These four dimensions of whole-person care include:

  • Mind: both the mental acuity and the emotional well-being that stems from a person’s thought processes, which is nurtured by mental health services professionals.
  • Spirit: the beliefs, values, or faith-based principles that sustain, support, and even define a person’s life experiences—both painful and uplifting.
  • Social health: the quality and stability of human relationships and social needs, which can either bolster or disrupt the delicate social determinants of health.
  • Environment: the social determinants of health, including access to fresh, healthy food, clean air, and safe exercise space—all of which affect health outcomes of any primary care plan and may require housing support to be included in case management.

Although it was a German internist who coined the term “integrative medicine,” the philosophy and practice of this model have spanned civilizations. From Mesopotamia to ancient Greece and Rome, to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), history’s healers have always been whole-person care managers and community partners. A recent survey by the American Hospital Association found that 42% of hospitals integrate complementary treatments into whole-person care.

The technology-driven integration of this care model into mainstream medicine is pushing today’s healthcare evolution. Public health and social services officials at the Department of Healthcare Services are being trained to follow this integrative, collaborative care coordination model.

Why is whole-person care important?

Whole-person care is critical for improving health outcomes because human wellness depends on multi-dimensional, multisystemic care coordination. People’s social, emotional, economic, and environmental conditions affect their health.

Safety-net target populations often struggle with overlapping physical and behavioral health issues that stem from psychosocial determinants of health, like housing instability or homelessness, unemployment or underemployment, “food desert” neighborhoods and food insecurity, as well as substance misuse and pollution. All these factors dramatically affect care access and health outcomes.

Public health officials are embracing whole-person care by addressing the needs of these high-risk populations with human services, housing support, and social services that promote integrative care. Successful health outcomes require data sharing with clinicians and collaborative case management.

The popularity of whole-person care, in all its diverse forms, has been growing for decades. When people demand a specific service, they already believe in it—and they’re motivated to follow its prescriptions. That’s why it’s critical that conventional medical centers incorporate the principles and treatments applied by complementary health centers into their case management when patients request it.

As the public demanded more options, researchers began to study complementary approaches in a clinical environment. Research demonstrated that the whole person care model that addresses chronic pain and disease in an outpatient integrative clinic is successful, sustainable, and can be replicated in academic health centers and hospital clinics.

The National Institutes of Health report successful health outcomes applying this model in outpatient clinics, and suggest ways to replicate whole-person care protocols in hospitals, healthcare systems, community health centers, and medical centers of all sizes.

What kind of services are included in whole-person care?

Whole-person care requires an expansive care team to deliver services that address the physical health, mental health, and social determinants of each patient.

These transdisciplinary teams can include:

  • MDs
  • RNs
  • OBGYNs
  • Social workers
  • Public health officials
  • Psychologists
  • Chaplains
  • Pharmacists
  • Physical therapists
  • Massage therapists
  • Nutritionists and dieticians
  • Yoga and meditation therapists
  • Acupuncturists
  • Wellness coaches

When all these specialists on a care team practice data sharing, they’re able to integrate physical health services with behavioral healthcare and coordinate psychosocial determinants that affect a patient’s well-being. As primary care approaches and wellness specialties overlap, care coordination is becoming a more collaborative, integrative practice.

How can providers coordinate care?

To achieve positive health outcomes through a whole-person care model, you have to deliver the right care, in the right place, at the right time. This is only possible if all providers practice impeccable care coordination and data sharing. Collaborative case management provides patients with easy access to healthcare systems, social services, and a diverse set of highly specialized healthcare providers.

For populations experiencing food insecurity, substance use challenges, or homelessness, your care team may prioritize behavioral health and housing support while engaging community partners to manage social determinants affecting a patient’s well-being.

Whole-person care pilot programs aim to provide integrative primary care in locations where patients are able to receive it.

Primary care clinics, emergency departments, behavioral health centers, high-risk care medical centers, community partners, housing support, and human services need to practice regular data-sharing with specialists to facilitate physical healthcare, behavioral healthcare, and psychosocial healthcare—helping this target population achieve positive health outcomes.

Such collaborative care coordination requires efficient and effective Care Management platforms.

How to implement data sharing between providers

Collaborative care coordination lies at the heart of whole-person care. That can only happen by sharing data across healthcare systems and specialists’ offices, as well as community partners or the Department of Healthcare Services. Data sharing enables all clinicians on a care team to:

  • Identify target populations (high-risk populations like those experiencing homelessness or substance use disorder require immediate
    housing support, social needs, and mental health services)
  • Embrace care coordination between multiple specialists and healthcare systems
  • Facilitate specialist referrals (as well as referrals to community partners when needed)
  • Evaluate clinician performance
  • Assess health outcomes
  • Highlight opportunities for improvement (and address social determinants of health)

To dramatically streamline case management for target populations, whole-person care teams use next-generation Care Management platforms. Healthcare systems must modernize the speed and efficiency of their care while abiding by legal and regulatory data-sharing requirements.

Implementing cross-organization consent to support an “opt-out” rather than the dated “opt-in” approach is one way to transcend data-sharing barriers. Streamlined data-sharing cuts down on redundant processes, improving health outcomes while boosting bottom lines.

Adopt the whole-person approach to achieve better outcomes

Promoting whole-person care and well-being requires patient engagement and compliance, both of which can be enabled and simplified by data-sharing software. This next-generation technology can also enhance lifelong bonds between clinicians, patients, and community partners.

Whole-person care requires multi-dimensional, multi-systemic, and collaborative care coordination. Your patients’ social, emotional, economic, and environmental conditions affect their healthcare and quality of life — nurture all of them with whole-person care.

Manage that care effectively with the next-generation Care Management platform that best fulfills the needs of your patients and clinicians.

Want to see the Welkin platform in action? Download our case study to discover how Welkin helps care teams deliver whole-person care.

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