Over the past decade healthcare researchers have recognized that a person’s health status is greatly affected by the physical environment and social conditions they find themselves in. Many of these factors are the result of a person’s lifestyle choices, educational level, employment status, and physical location. Synergistically, these factors can have a profound impact on an individual’s long term health.

The Covid-19 health crisis validated telehealth as a viable care delivery tool during a public health emergency that requires social distancing. But can telehealth also be used to diminish the effects of the Social Determinants of Health?

Social Determinants of Health

As a component of the transition to value-based care delivery models, healthcare providers are utilizing population health management strategies to identify and address the social determinants of health (SDoH). The Kaiser Family Foundation defines SDoH as “the structural determinants and conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age) is critical if virtual/connected care is going to be an effective and long term sustainable solution.”

In a 2014 study, the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement presented that 80 percent of a person’s health and well-being can be tied to:

  • Socioeconomic Factors (40%) such as education, job status, family/social support, income and community safety.
  • Physical Environment (10%) such as safe and affordable housing, open and recreational spaces, clean air and water, overall quality of life
  • Health Behaviors (30%) – such as diet & exercise, tobacco use, alcohol use, or sexual activity

The American Hospital Association (AHA) presented 8 different social determinants that make up these 80%:

  • Housing — is housing secure and safe?
  • Food — is the community considered a food desert?
  • Education — including cultural and technical competencies
  • Transportation — is reliable travel to and from health care available?
  • Violence — community and domestic
  • Social Support — caregiver network
  • Employment — job security and income
  • Health Behaviors — nutrition, sleep, exercise, and drug/stimulant use

Only the remaining 20 percent of a person’s health status is dependent on access to care and the quality of care available within their community. While over the past decades much emphasis has been placed on the quality of care and improving access to care, overcoming for compensation for the Social Determinants of Health is equally if not even more important.

Using Virtual Care to Offset SDoH

As has been demonstrated and documented, properly designed virtual care services increase access to care for patients that might otherwise miss scheduled visits or choose to neglect symptoms. This was repeatedly shown throughout the Covid-19 public health emergency (PHE). Recent studies indicate that many chronic conditions have been exacerbated as a result of the patients’ inability to access timely care for issues that could have been prevented or diminished had there been consideration of the factors that impeded their care.

One of the many consequences of the PHE has been the recognition that many communities have been underserved during the pandemic with many patients missing or cancelling scheduled visits. As a result, leading healthcare organizations and physician practices have begun embracing population health management as an important strategy for maintaining and ultimately improving the health of the communities they serve. As part of that paradigm shift, awareness of SDoH is critical to achieving long-term positive health status. Telehealth is fast becoming the most efficient and effective means for identifying and managing current or potential health conditions.

Clinicians now routinely utilize video visits to assess their patients’ surroundings — e.g., is their home clean and safe, is there food in the fridge. Furthermore video visits can be used effectively to observe and supervise family caregivers ensuring that they are properly trained and supported to provide appropriate and timely care.

Here’s a typical telehealth visit scenario that also addresses SDoH:

Dr. Smith: Good morning Ms. Jones, I’m so glad we were able to keep our visit today. I know how challenging it can be for you to get to our office. I remember you mentioning at our last visit the effort you made to get here by bus and given your recovery from hip surgery I thought you might appreciate this video visit to review your condition without you having to leave your house.

Ms. Jones: Thank you Dr. Smith and to your staff for helping me set up and use this technology, it certainly has made my day a lot less stressful, especially now that I don’t have to walk through my rough neighborhood to catch the bus.

Dr. Smith: I’m glad we could assist you, it’s our commitment to making access to us easier and more convenient. Since our visit today involves how your diet may be affecting your recovery, I had you meet with my nurse prior to this visit to explain why I would like you to show me to your pantry and refrigerator so we can review what food items may be slowing your recovery.

Ms. Jones takes Dr. Smith for a brief video tour of her kitchen pantry and refrigerator.

Dr. Smith: Given your diabetes and high blood pressure, I noticed that you have several boxes of pasta and rice, a bag of potatoes and one of chips, several loaves of bread, and a case of pop. I suggested at our last visit that you try to eat more vegetables and fruit and less processed foods. Were you able to purchase fresh produce at the farmer’s market as we discussed? If not, I can contact the local food bank and Meals on Wheels to make arrangements for delivery of produce and healthy food items. Are you OK with us doing that?

Ms. Jones: Yes, thank you, that would be most welcome and appreciated. Since my recent surgery, I have not been able to shop for myself and rely on my family to come by when needed. Unfortunately, their schedules do not always allow for them to drop off food. I have asked that they try and prepare some healthier meals in advance that I can freeze. My daughter suggested that she and her siblings might purchase a meal delivery plan. Do you have any recommendations?

Dr. Smith: Not off hand but I can have our nutritionist contact you to discuss how to create an appropriate meal plan and menu. We may be able to have a volunteer companion stop by to visit and help you with food preparation activities if you don’t have daily assistance.

Dr. Smith: How have you been sleeping? You mentioned that your air conditioner hasn’t been working and that you are having difficulty sleeping due to heat. Were you able to get that repaired? If not, I may be able to arrange for a repairman to stop by who is part of a local community effort to assist seniors in their homes. In the future, my staff can help arrange for transportation to my office should you need to come in-person rather than spending a few hours getting here by bus.

Ms. Jones: Thank you Dr. Smith very much for all your caring and concern. I appreciate the effort you and your staff are making on my behalf and will try to continue to follow your advice.

Dr. Smith: Before we go, I wanted to just check on your range of motion and gait. Could you please walk across the room while I watch you move. Are you experiencing any pain or discomfort?

Ms. Jones: Still some pain but much less and my stiffness seems to be less restrictive since you gave me those exercises to do everyday. I appreciated your therapist reviewing my progress and she was able to correct several exercises I was doing wrong.

Dr. Smith: Great news, please keep up your exercise, you will thank me when you can carry your grandbaby. How has your wound been doing? Are you still confident in cleaning and bandaging? If you would like a refresher, let me know and I will have a staff member contact you and your caregiver team to review.

Ms. Jones: I think I’m good for now. Thank you very much Dr. Smith, this visit really made my day.

Future Outlook

As reimbursement models evolve, specifically the move to value-based, outcomes driven reimbursement and away from fee-for-service, telehealth will become an increasingly critical tool for tracking and engaging patients with real-time interventions by providing ongoing care management and education. This effort is crucial if health systems, hospitals, clinicians, and payers are to ultimately bend the cost curve while improving both the patient experience and provider satisfaction.

Social determinants of health disproportionately impact underserved communities (seniors, minorities, children, handicapped). The consequences and impact, though, are felt throughout society from the cost of unnecessary or inappropriate visits to the ED or admissions to the hospital, missed or canceled visits, health screenings, lab tests, or follow-up visits resulting in diminished health outcomes.

Resolving SDoH requires a strategic approach along with a coordinated response from local governments, civic organizations, healthcare providers, payers, employers, schools, and consumers themselves. Through change management strategies, technology training, and financial incentives, communities are beginning the journey of reducing or eliminating many of these obstacles to health and wellness by providing their communities with programs and services designed to mitigate the effects of SDoH.

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Christian Milaster and his team optimize Telehealth Services for health systems and physician practices. Christian is the Founder and President of Ingenium Digital Health Advisors where he and his expert consortium partner with healthcare leaders to enable the delivery of extraordinary care.

Contact Christian by phone or text at 657-464-3648, via email, or video chat.