Young people want their physicians to ask about social determinants of health

Doctors should inquire about food, housing, education, and offer resources, according to survey.

Young people want their primary care doctors to ask about social determinants of health (SDOHs) such as food and housing insecurity and discrimination, according to a new study.

The findings were based on a survey of more than 1,000 young people aged 14 to 24 who answered questions by text message in March 2021. The survey was part of the MyVoice National Poll of Youth, based in the University of Michigan’s Department of Family Medicine.

The poll inquired about housing, food, education, safety, and discrimination – and 81% of young people said their doctors and other health care staff should ask about those issues, according to a news release about the survey.

“It seems obvious that addressing social needs, like food and housing, in clinical settings would benefit patients. But we actually know very little about whether and how patients would want to receive this kind of assistance,” first author Claire Chang said in the news release. Chang is a U-M Medical School student.

“Youth in our study told us that they do want to talk about social determinants of health with their providers,” Claire Chang said. “It is important for us to understand these preferences and desires as social/medical care integration efforts spread across the country.”

In the survey, 30% said if they were experiencing difficulties with the SODHs, embarrassment might keep them from seeking help. Respondents said they would want physicians and health care staff to offer resources for people with social needs (25%) and referrals (13%), along with general advice (22%) and listening (11%), according to the study.

Respondents split on their preferences for receiving information, with 51% preferring to receive information or assistance in person, though they were amenable to telephone, email, and handouts.

The study, “Youth Perspectives on Their Medical Team’s Role in Screening for and Addressing Social Determinants of Health,” was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

An increasing number of health systems and clinics -- including U-M’s own academic medical center, Michigan Medicine -- now screen for SDOH’s as part of patient care, the researchers said in the news release.

“As a doctor, what I hear is my adolescent and young adult patients want me to ask them about more than their health. They want me to ask about their lives,” said Tammy Chang, MD, MPH, MS, poll director and U-M family physician. “This opens a door for doctors and other healthcare providers to really understand the root causes of the issues that young people are facing today. Youth in our study didn't expect providers to solve their issues, rather, just listen. I can do that.”