Better understanding of social drivers of health is key to reducing disparities
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) recently issued a Request for Information “to gather feedback and perspectives related to challenges and opportunities for the Agency to embed health equity into our efforts encouraging innovation, reducing burden, and creating efficiencies across the healthcare system,” is a superb opportunity to highlight the impact of the social drivers of health (SDoH) in our society. Only once SDoH are identified and understood can we take action to minimize their effects on wellness.
As defined by the World Health Organization, SDoH includes socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood/social and physical environment, nutrition and food security, health care access, digital access, and more. SDoH are a key component of health equity — where everyone has a fair opportunity to reach their optimal health.
Minimizing health disparities and moving towards a more equitable health care system is a top priority for the current administration. While health equity is the clear goal, the path to achieve it is less apparent, but it undoubtedly includes researching SDoH.
SDoH can be studied quantitatively, via data analysis, and qualitatively, via community engagement. Both methods of research are equally useful when attempting to address the enormous and complex issue of health disparities. But once the necessary data are collected and analyzed, comprehensive action based on that information must be taken.
How health equity can reduce burden
Understanding the SDoH will reduce burden throughout the health care system because providers will be better equipped to serve their patients and communities based on their specific needs and vulnerabilities. Beyond improving patient health, equitable health practices and the consideration of SDoH at all levels of the health care system minimizes strain on the system because preventative measures can be taken rather than relying on more costly, reactive procedures.
Preemptive, data-driven action not only cuts taxpayers’ costs by reducing the likelihood of emergency department visits and ambulance rides, it also saves time for medical staff and first responders. The health care system is severely understaffed and heavily strained after the COVID-19 pandemic, so any time savings will be invaluable. The pandemic also underscored how critical proactive measures are when dealing with infectious disease.
Preventative action is most valuable in high-risk communities where the benefits for the residents, providers, and community at large will be significant. However, such action is possible only if the relevant information is compiled, analyzed, and made available to health care providers.
We don’t know what we don’t know
Data collection is the critical first step in attaining health equity, as well as fostering innovation in health care. It’s futile to act without concrete information to support decision making. Collecting, analyzing and managing health care data at the micro and macro levels enables informed decisions that can help individuals and communities achieve their healthiest outcomes. Luckily, modern technology is capable of intelligently analyzing massive troves of data to identify patterns and abnormalities.
Data can illuminate emerging health issues in a community or region early on, allowing for preventative action to be taken to address the problem. Furthermore, comprehensive data management can be used to identify the root causes of the issue in addition to identifying the health trend itself.
A less remarkable, but equally valuable, aspect of data management is the potential for streamlining administrative processes and reducing their burden on health care providers. Automating repetitive, clerical processes frees providers to focus more of their time and energy on their patients.
While seeking to digitally modernize and streamline processes within the health care system, it’s imperative to understand and prioritize equitable practices. Advancing health equity need not be an obstacle to operations, but rather an enabler of modernization. It’s an unfortunate misunderstanding that striving for health equity wouldfurther strain the health care system. In reality, the goals of digital transformation and equity are deeply intertwined, since both are largely based on improving data management practices.
Of course, patient data must also be treated with extreme sensitivity to privacy. It’s also important to remember that while data management tools are critical, each data point represents a real patient. Health care organizations or providers seeking to improve their data management practices should seek partners with a demonstrated history of secure, reliable, innovative data management.
CMS’s Request For Information is an excellent opportunity for all health care system stakeholders to reflect on the importance of health equity, the role of SDoH, and the role of data management in building a sustainable, informed future for health care.
Therefore, all those working within the healthcare system should be well educated on the impact of SDoH on patient and community health. Health equity is a vast and complicated issue, but with the help of modern technological innovations, we can deliver the healthiest possible future for all.
Kamala Green is social drivers of health program manager at National Government Services, which supports the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other federal agencies with IT and business process services.