Claire Pomeroy, CEO and president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, an expert in infectious diseases and a long-time advocate for patients, drove home the point of the importance of the social determinants of health by relating a story of a young woman who needed asthma medication but was unable to afford it.
She got a prescription for an inhaler she couldn't afford, Pomeroy told a full room at HIMSS19. She knew the story because she was that woman. She needed a ride, food and money for a few days and had no way to get any of that, let alone buy a drug she couldn't afford.
The clinicians followed all of the right clinical protocols for her condition. But, she said, "They didn't have the information they truly needed to make me better."
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What was needed was for her clinicians to pay attention to the social determinants of health, an issue that providers are increasingly realizing need to be addressed if their population of patients is to remain healthy.
Without this attention being paid to housing, food, transportation and other socio-economic needs, costs will never be brought inline, as hospitals see patients returning to be admitted or get care through the emergency room.
"Our cost and our outcomes demand change," Pomeroy said.
The statistics show the need. Black mothers die at truly unacceptable rates in this country, she said and all blacks in the United States have a life expectancy that is on average, 10 years less than whites.
All people in the United States who have a college degree live longer than those with a high school diploma. Stress on the job plays a part. And the opioid crisis has led to overdose deaths surpassing the odds of dying than from a car accident.
"We must redesign the U.S. healthcare system from one of sick care to wellcare," Pomeroy said.
Healthcare makes up only 10 percent of what goes into the social determinants of health. The biggest percentage goes to behavioral patterns, genetic predisposition and social circumstances.
"We work all day and are only impacting 10-15 percent of the social determinants of health," Pomeroy said. "Spending on social determinants make sense. We need to move beyond pilot programs and start scaling some of these things."
Hospitals that spend money on housing to take care of their homeless population see a a 93 percent reduction in costs. For every $25 increase in delivered meals for older adults, there's a 1 percent decline in nursing home admissions.
"Addressing the social determinants is an investment," she said.
The biggest challenge is lack of funds for hospitals struggling to stay in the black, lack of data and siloed proprietary care information.
Information connectivity allowed one health system to learn that 31 percent of the Medicaid moms in its area were not enrolled in WIC, and therefore not getting access to food and supplies for their babies.
Technology is needed, as are more health policies for reimbursement that address risk adjustment. State innovation models help, as does the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services accountable health communities model, a five-year pilot looking at the connection between social assistance, health and costs.
EHRs should include information on housing, food, transportation and other needs. Systems must transform their thinking, create a new strategy, empower multidisciplinary teams, educate health professionals, invest in research and "raise our voices to drive change," Pomeroy said.
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