By David Wenger, CEO, Bridge Connector.
At this point, most of us in health care have read similar statistics about why we need to do more to address social determinants of health (SDoH) — the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and how those factors impact individuals’ health — to improve patient outcomes. These conditions and their resulting social needs include, but are not limited to, a person’s equitable access to nutrition, housing, transportation, education, and employment opportunities.
SDoH contribute to: more than 50 percent of re-admissions, one-third of patient deaths, and up to 80 percent of our overall health outcomes, as opposed to clinical care.
There’s a reason SDoH have been all the buzz at conferences and in trade publications in recent years. We now understand the prevalence of these social barriers as quite significant: one in five patients could be at high risk with SDoH-related problems, and up to 68 percent of patients suffer from at least one SDoH.
Time is of the essence to tackle some of these social determinants, especially when coupled with the rapidly shifting patient demographic, sometimes called the “silver tsunami.”
Payer SDoH studies in no short supply
seems everyone is in a race to figure out what SDoH approach will move the
needle toward lower risk for their patient populations. But payers, in
particular, have taken on a hefty amount of the leg work needed with social
determinant “barriers to care” studies, because they are generally the most
financially accountable, from a population health analytics perspective, to
Recent news about of these payer SDoH pilot programs and research studies have been both interesting and useful across the care continuum, a summary of which include:
- WellCare, which provides managed care plans for more than 4.4 million Americans, ran a pilot program on more than 33,000 patients, referring them to more than 100,000 community-based social services programs, and was able to reduce inpatient spending by 53 percent, outpatient spending by 23 percent, and emergency spending by 26 percent.
- In its Bold Goal 2019 Progress Report, Humana focused on patients in specific lines of business, including their Medicare Advantage program, where 91 percent of seniors who have at least one chronic condition. They enacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Healthy Days” self-reporting method of measuring healthy vs. unhealthy days and have also screened half a million people for SDoH since 2018, with the goal to screen one million by 2019. Humana notes that these social barriers are “deeply personal,” which requires closer partnership to track and measure population health.
- Blue Cross is already instituting food, nutrition, and housing services as part of some of its plans. But it also recently announced an investment of $40 million with Solera Health, to address both mental health and SDoH matters, including “food insecurity, medically tailored meals, transportation, falls prevention and social isolation” with lifestyle modification programs such as diabetes or management, and tobacco cessation programs.
- A study by the Anthem Public Policy Institute says individuals and the public (researchers and journalists) perceive SDoH differently. Individuals tend to lead with concerns about the health care “system,” whether they can find the right provider, followed by whether they have adequate “social support.” The public tends to “frame health outcomes through the lens of structural factors like education and income level perhaps, in part, because these factors are easier to measure.”
- UnitedHealthcare and the American Medical Association partnered to expand the existing ICD-10 diagnostic codes being used to identify social and economic barriers to care. This adds 23 more codes to that list, some of which would “indicate a patient’s inability to pay for prescriptions, inadequate social interaction, or fears about losing housing.”
Existing workflows provide best locale for SDoH communication
Despite all of the
various innovative steps being taken to bring SDoH to the forefront, we know
that most patients still aren’t
talking about SDoH concerns with their physicians. There are many reasons why, but one
logical solution to bolster SDoH communication between physicians and patients
is to incorporate, at minimum, the ability to identify social needs where they
are already doing business — in these EHR, CRM, and other third-party
As is evidenced by the siloed health IT data systems that have for too long crippled the health care industry’s transparency and ROI, we know that simply identifying social barriers to care is not enough. Within the designated “source of truth” that is most responsible for driving patient engagement, whether that is an EHR, CRM, or other platform, we need to build — or integrate — expanded capabilities for SDoH identification, referrals, and tracking each throughout the continuum of care to close the gaps that currently exist.
That is not to say that physicians must now wear yet another hat — that of a social worker or a social services case manager. But being asked to solve SDoH from the current physician’s workflow perspective, without integrating SDoH into the patient record, is basically saying to physicians:
“Improve clinical outcomes. But first, you must identify non-clinical data, be responsible for referrals to improve these individual circumstances, and track each of those referrals’ progress, all in different platforms, and none of which talk to one another.”
This is not setting our patients or their physicians up for success.
The idea of a standardized SDoH screening mechanism within the EHR has been endorsed by the National Academy of Medicine, the Medicare Access and Children’s Health Information Program Reauthorization Act of 2015, the 2016 Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Quality Strategy, and several other organizations, as released in an Annals of Family Medicine study. But unfortunately, in this first U.S. study of its kind to address feasibility, “little is (currently) known about how to capture and present (SDoH) information in community health centers’ EHRs.” Nor did the study conclude how to integrate EHR-based documentation needs into community health centers’ existing workflows.
The main barriers cited in the Annals’ study were that EHR-based SDoH tools:
(1) Create a too-fragmented view of the patient, with relevant data in too many disparate locations
(2) Might add a layer of difficulty to obtain and act on SDoH data
(3) If SDoH patient information has been acquired on paper, that requires yet another dual, manual data entry problem when “referral workflows were (already) seen as too time-consuming, especially when no follow-up was planned,” resulting in “an unmanageable follow-up workload.”
To date, the EHR has done a good job of serving most of the goals to take our country’s health records digital. But it is also safe to say that the EHR, in and of itself, cannot be all things to all persons working in health care. In addition to the major enterprise EHR systems, there is a proliferation of specialty, industry-specific EHRs, which may or may not have separate CRM platforms, not to mention all of the other third-party, various other platforms you can see within any one given practice, such as separate billing and referral management types of platforms. There is a reason that “interoperability” among all of these disparate health care data systems has become another hot topic for the industry.
To yield maximum value for our customers, integrating SDoH data is best-approached from a workflows perspective — not just connecting disparate data systems for the sake of “more data,” but to make caregivers’ lives easier, and to create actionable data that enable better business decisions. And we already know that one of the easiest ways to improve efficiency for health care organizations is to remove dual, manual entry between EHR, CRM, and other third-party platforms that hold patient data — these are the first and most valid case studies of how to improve organizational efficiency while bolstering patient care.
There has been a flurry of innovative partnerships and technological improvements to address SDoH, all of which should ultimately be supported by policy changes — each of these as prevailing themes at trade shows and conferences in recent years, such as the America’s Health Insurance Plans’ (AHIP) annual conference, held recently in Nashville. Meanwhile, we look forward to participating in more discussions about how those of us in health IT can do our part — bridging SDoH informational and communication gaps between physicians and patients. This could include integrating non-clinical SDoH concerns into the patient’s clinical record, in and out of these platforms, establishing standards for capturing SDoH to make data-sharing easier, and even incorporating social services databases for more streamlined SDoH-specific “referral management.”
We talk a lot about how to achieve interoperability in health care, with all of its disparate data systems, and SDoH is another compelling and recent reason why we must accelerate these solutions, which would ultimately benefit health care and all of its stakeholders — patients, physicians, payers, and everyone in between.