National Health Center Week: August 7th to August 13th, 2016
New Data Collection Effort by Health Centers to Inform Better Care, Cross-Sector Collaboration
Has your physician asked you about stress, or how close you feel to your neighbors and community? About how stable your housing is? Or whether lack of transportation has kept you from work or medical appointments? Questions like these will soon become familiar as healthcare providers focus more on collecting data on something called “the social determinants of health (SoDH).”
The “Big Data” movement in healthcare, which collects and analyzes complex sets of data, has led to the creation of new medical treatments, therapeutic care, and even the beginning of personalized medicine. Now the trend is towards collecting even bigger data around the economic, social, and environmental factors – social determinants – that affect the health not only of individuals, but larger patient populations of entire neighborhoods and cities.
This fall, community health centers across the U.S., including those in Massachusetts will begin using a new standardized tool to collect more data on SoDH. The tool will help us ask questions about a patient’s financial security, social integration, and education, employment, and stress levels.
Systemic issues greatly contribute to one’s overall mental and physical health. For instance, lack of financial security often means choosing food over medication, and poor housing conditions can impact the cleanliness of air and water. While access to health care services is fundamental to healthy communities, health cannot be sustained through medical interventions alone.
That’s why collecting SoDH data is so critical. To expand the understanding of why specific health issues persist in communities, we need deeper insight which can help lay the groundwork for new interventions to prevent disease and promote improved well-being for all residents.
More than 50 years ago Dr. H. Jack Geiger observed that “the determinants of health are in the social order — not in health care.” The community health center movement was launched based on the notion of creating healthier communities for healthier individuals, taking novel approaches to addressing the SoDH.
For instance, Whittier Street Health Center has partnered with Fair Foods to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to our patients at our health center. Our physicians also write “Prescriptions For Health” to refer patients to our Wellness Institute which includes our Community Garden and Fitness Club. With these prescriptions, our patients are connected with life coaching, stress reduction, nutrition classes and fitness training and classes to learn how exercise and diet can improve their glucose levels and blood pressure.
Many factors that contribute to health are behavioral in nature, so community health centers have surpassed other providers in the integration of behavioral health and primary care services. Each patient has a care team that includes a behavioral health professional who is readily accessible should a patient present with depression or other mental health needs during a medical visit. This “warm hand-off” ensures that patients’ overall care is seamless and helps reduce the stigma of seeking mental health services.
Today we have technology that we didn’t have at the start of the health center movement. What’s more, the data we can gather provides opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs across Boston’s healthcare, life sciences, digital and biotechnology industries to become part of the solution for improving community health.
Opportunities to drive change could come from seemingly unrelated industries – information around housing conditions could inspire better air filter systems to help reduce acquired asthma and data around material insecurity could stimulate the banking community to create and market new financial products to under-banked consumers.
By collecting and acting on non-clinical data, Whittier Street Health Center and other health centers will be better positioned to identify whether existing neighborhood services address the local SoDH in an incentivized and sustainable way. Big data can help improve patient outcomes, decrease health disparities, lower the total cost of care, and address population care management on a macro level. It’s a huge, incredible challenge but a step in the right direction.
For more information, please visit at our website at www.wshc.org
Frederica M. Williams
President & CEO
Whittier Street Health Center