Credit Earl Wilson/The New York Times
“Doc,” my patient said, his voice a mix of amusement and irritation. “I ain’t got food to eat or a place to sleep. Took me two hours and three buses to get here. And you’re tellin’ me about some numbers?”
He had a point. Though, in my defense, these numbers — his cholesterol and blood pressure — were important ones.
As I tried to persuade him of their relevance, I thought of another number, his ZIP code — or lack of one, since he lived on the street — and how that was a far more important factor for how long he might live than his cholesterol.
What’s remarkable about our conversation isn’t that it happened, but that it doesn’t happen enough. Many of my patients are not forthcoming about their challenges, and when I probe, I’m often surprised by how many struggle with basic needs like housing, food and transportation.
I recently discussed starting insulin with a patient to control his diabetes. He hesitated — his concern not the syringes needed to inject it, but rather not having a refrigerator to store it. Another patient recently called to cancel her appointment. She was moving into a new apartment — again. Her son’s asthma had flared up, and she thought the mold and cockroaches in their current home were making it worse.
These situations highlight what we’ve known for decades: that patients’ social and economic circumstances powerfully influence their health and well-being. But until recently there’s been relatively little effort to systematically address these factors.
The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a government organization established by the Affordable Care Act to test new ways to deliver and pay for health care, is trying to change that. It recently announced a pilot program to help health systems close gaps between medical care and social services in their communities. The program, known as Accountable Health Communities, will invest $157 million over five years to study whether helping patients with social needs in five key areas — housing, food, utilities, transportation and interpersonal safety — can improve health and reduce medical costs.
“Clearly we’re not the first to understand that social factors are important,” said Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, the innovation center’s director of preventive and population health care models. “But these efforts have been fragmented. They haven’t been studied in a way that can be nationally scaled.” As the world’s largest purchaser of health care services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can help address that, he said.
The Accountable Health Communities program will award grants to 44 organizations around the country to build partnerships among state Medicaid agencies, health systems and community service providers to identify which strategies are most effective for linking patients to the services they need.
There’s good evidence that dedicated attention to social support can improve health and cut costs. Research suggests nutrition assistance for low-income women and children reduces the risk of low birth weight, infant mortality and developmental problems — at a cost that’s more than fully offset by lower Medicaid spending. Other work suggests providing elderly patients with home-delivered meals can help them live independently and prevent expensive nursing home stays. Research also shows that providing housing for low-income and homeless people can substantially reduce medical costs. A housing initiative in Oregon, for example, decreased Medicaid spending by 55 percent for the newly housed; a study of a similar program in Los Angeles found that every $1 spent on housing led to $6 saved on medical costs.
And local efforts around the country can serve as models for change.
Hennepin Health in Minnesota, for example, is an organization that serves low-income patients, and emerged as a partnership between local social service, public health and medical leaders. These groups share data and funding to ensure patients have access to services like housing, utilities, job training and behavioral and substance abuse counseling. The program’s efforts have lowered emergency department use, reduced the need for hospitalizations, improved chronic disease care — and saved money. Other innovative organizations, like the Camden Coalition in New Jersey and Health Leads in several metropolitan areas, have likewise recognized the challenges vulnerable patients face outside the hospital, and tackled them in inspiring ways.
But we haven’t yet done enough to collect, examine and scale these insights. There’s been no concerted national effort to ease the social problems that drive poor health, and consequently, little financial incentive for medical practitioners to collaborate with social service providers. Until now.
“I think what’s most important is the signal we’re sending,” Dr. Sanghavi said of the Accountable Health Communities initiative. “We recognize that hundreds, potentially thousands, of communities have these needs. We can’t meet them all right now. But this sends a broader signal to other innovators out there — be they private, public or philanthropic: Social determinants are important. We want to learn from their efforts. We want to spark that flame.”
Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., is a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Follow him on Twitter: @DhruvKhullar.