By Julie A. Pursley, MSHI, RHIA, CHDA, FAHIMA, director of health information thought leadership, AHIMA.
Reading news articles about vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking. My organization, the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), believes that social determinants of health (SDOH)—the socio-economic behavioral elements that affect health—play in role in explaining why poorer communities have experienced more negative impacts during the pandemic than other areas. We also believe it’s vital for SDOH information to be recorded in medical records.
It’s not difficult to imagine why low-income Americans may face increased exposure to the novel coronavirus. Perhaps most critically, people experiencing poverty are more likely to not have health insurance or be underinsured.
In addition, while many office workers have worked from home during the pandemic, people who earn lower incomes often work in public-facing jobs like restaurants and grocery stores and have no choice other than to take public transit to get to work. And the millions of Americans who have lost jobs may be dealing with food insecurity and a lack of money available to secure food and other goods at home.
Communities of color often comprise low income workers who encounter many of the situations mentioned above (and more). At AHIMA we support collecting race and ethnicity data for optimal public health reporting because recording SDOH information in a patient’s medical record can lead to better healthcare outcomes. SDOH information in a patient record offers providers a more complete story and can influence how they approach treatment, education, and care management.
“We’ve had physicians across our practices reach out to patients living alone during this time of social isolation, those who were identified as potentially being isolated and without support,” William Torkildsen, MD, chairman at South-Texas-based independent physician association Valley Organized Physicians (VOP), recently told the Journal of AHIMA. “We recorded those results and have been able to take action on the patient’s behalf, connecting them to necessary resources.”
For physicians to have this important data, health information professionals are essential to the process of recording SDOH information. We can help determine how SDOH information is collected, protected and governed in the patient’s health record—and because we work with team members throughout the healthcare ecosystem, we’re able to push for data-driven changes. We see the person behind the data and understand that health information is human information.
AHIMA takes pride in being the authority in health information and will continue to lead on this issue. We’re taking big-picture steps forward by convening and participating in conversations about SDOH information and medical records. On an immediate, practical level, we’re supporting the continued development of classifications and terminologies for SDOH data.
Our leaders encourage health information professionals to fully engage in their own organizations’ SDOH strategic plan, advocating for and providing expertise in incorporating this important data into the patient’s record. I’m proud to work in a profession that can make a positive difference for our most vulnerable community members. AHIMA will continue to lead on this issue as we empower health information professionals to tear down barriers to better health outcomes.