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Doctors to the healthcare system: Pay to connect patients to social services

A national survey of physicians finds that doctors believe their patients’ unmet social needs, such as access to reliable transportation and adequate housing, lead directly to worse health.

Four in five physicians who participated in a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) believe that it is as important that their patients’ unmet social needs are addressed as are their medical conditions and three in four wish the healthcare system would pay to connect patients with the services they think will most benefit their patients’ health.

As the healthcare system strives to cut costs, it may seem out of touch for doctors to think that the healthcare system should take on the additional costs of connecting patients to social services, but the idea isn’t that off-kilter said Rebecca Onie, co-founder and CEO of Health Leads, a RWJF grantee that works with clinics and hospitals to connect patients to social services.

“Investing wisely in creating patient resource connections upfront can be a relatively low-cost, add-on expense – with an additional long-term return – that adds real value to hospitals and health centers,” Onie said. “Specifically, by staffing clinics with an additional workforce trained to connect patients with basic resources that impact their health, clinicians are then better positioned to practice at the top of their licenses, thereby increasing clinic productivity, enabling them to see more patients and deliver more reimbursable clinical care.”

Adding to the potential of actually bringing in more money, Onie said, putting a program in place that connects patients to social services may save the healthcare system money.

“Connecting patients to resources reduces the cost of healthcare by improving overall health, thereby minimizing or avoiding unnecessary hospital admissions and readmissions,” she said. “While some of these health benefits and savings are realized over the longer term, anticipated shorter-term advantages of meeting patients’ social needs include a reduction in physician and ER visits and associated pharmacy utilization. For example, connecting an asthmatic child’s family to utilities assistance that secures shut-off protection helps ensure electricity for a child’s nebulizer, thereby decreasing the potential for repeated ER visits for asthma.”

Based on the results of the RWJF’s physician survey, the survey’s authors recommend that those guiding the industry rethink the role of the healthcare system so that it does address the unmet social needs of patients.

“America’s physicians have delivered their diagnosis, but it is up to our healthcare providers, insurers and government leaders to rethink how healthcare is delivered in this country and what it means for Americans to be healthy,” the survey’s authors wrote. “Models that address social needs are a step in the right direction, but leadership and commitment from healthcare decision makers is required to create system-wide, lasting change."

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