How including 'social determinants' in EHRs can improve patient care

Chris Nerney
Chris Nerney, Contributing Writer |
How including 'social determinants' in EHRs can improve patient care

The electronic health records (EHRs) of hospitals and other providers typically are filled with patient medical data as well as lifestyle information, including whether and how much an individual smokes or drinks alcohol.

Increasingly, however, providers are finding value in collecting broader socioeconomic information regarding the circumstances and situations patients face in their everyday lives.

As Kaiser Health News reports:

"Some health organizations are now asking much more general questions: Do you have trouble paying your bills? Do you feel safe at home? Do you have enough to eat? Research shows these factors can be as important to health as exercise habits or whether you get enough sleep.

"Research has begun to show that a person’s ZIP code can be as important to her health as her genetic code."

To help patients cope with serious challenges such as homelessness or lack of transportation, providers such as Kaiser Permanente are assigning “patient navigators” to help struggling individuals meet their medical and health needs.

Patient navigators can help people who need to see medical professionals with paperwork, rides, child care, and even rent in the hopes that increased stability and financial security will result in better overall health while also reducing costs to the provider because they’re seeing patients before their health problems become more serious.

“Patient navigators have been around for a while,” Kaiser Health News notes. “What’s new is the form McGrath filled out and how hospitals are using the socioeconomic data the forms glean to serve patients.”  

Nicole Friedman, a regional manager at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, says one study showed that addressing the social needs of patients reduced emergency room utilization by 40 percent.

Cara James, director of the Office of Minority Health at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, tells Kaiser Health News, “More providers are beginning to recognize the impact that the social determinants have on their patients.”