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In the course of a few months, all of our lives changed in profound ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined. Suddenly, nothing was taken for granted: a trip to the grocery store, spending time with family and friends, and receiving services from a healthcare system that’s overwhelmed.
This uncertainty was particularly felt by those already struggling to obtain basic necessities and social support. Seniors for example, many of whom grapple with feelings of loneliness, have been further isolated in a time of social distancing. Many had trouble accessing food, transportation to run errands, financial resources to afford their medications, and other social determinants of health (SDOH) that impacted their outcomes and quality of life.
As a healthcare community, we must continue to find ways to build a system that’s value-based and human-centered—one that takes care of people’s full spectrum of clinical, social, and behavioral health needs. While this crisis has exposed and exacerbated just how many people need help, it also has the power to mobilize change and inspire action.
Change Starts with a Recognition of the Problem
Providing care and support to vulnerable populations is a moral imperative. It also has financial and economic implications for our healthcare systems and country at large. A recent study found that a lack of social connection is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder. Loneliness also appears to be twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. When these issues are unaddressed, they end up in the emergency room.
I have the honor of leading an organization that oversees the nation’s largest network of mobile clinicians, who go into the homes of Medicare beneficiaries to identify and address their clinical and social needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our team conducted these visits by phone and video. From April 1 to May 5, 2020 our health risk assessment data showed that 1 in 3 Medicare Advantage patients live alone, 17% have trouble getting around the house, and 22% struggle with everyday shopping or errands.
Social issues like these are far too often the root cause of costly and unnecessary emergency room visits. We must think of healthcare beyond clinical procedures and prescription drugs, to address the very issues that drive these clinical events in the first place.
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Clinical and Social Care
While SDOH has quickly gone from a buzzword to the boardroom, these issues have always existed. We’re fortunate to live in a country with thousands of amazing community-based organizations (CBOs), each with the knowledge and trust of their local communities.
Those of us in the healthcare community must recognize that we cannot do what CBOs do. If we want to create a more equitable system focused on holistic, whole-person care, it’s imperative that healthcare and social service providers work together more effectively in addressing the SDOH that put outcomes at risk.
This isn’t easy. It requires partnership and collaboration across sectors, as well as a steadfast commitment to privacy and patient confidentiality. But when done correctly, the benefits on access and quality of care is immense.
At Signify Health, we have the unique privilege of helping build cross-sector collaborations across all constituencies that touch a person’s life: CBOs, providers, insurers, government agencies, and employers. From Arizona to Texas, Michigan to Iowa, these connected communities are helping residents access vital support services and community programs like never before.
To accelerate an era where each person’s needs are met once they leave the four walls of the hospital or facility, we must acknowledge our limitations. Partnering with community providers, and building safe and collaborative alliances, is the only way to tackle these deeply entrenched and interrelated social issues.
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Will COVID-19 permanently reshape U.S. healthcare? Many experts seem to believe that’s the case. For Signify Health, reshaping healthcare starts with redesigning the way healthcare providers are paid.