Social determinants of health 101: Building equity

Capturing social determinants of health (SDOH) enables the use of data to fight healthcare disparities that often result from inequity. Read on for an introduction to what SDOH are and how the data may be used.
Social Determinants of Health

A patient’s health is not only influenced by what happens in the body, but also by one’s environment. Healthcare providers are increasingly realizing the importance of capturing data on socioeconomic factors – like one’s access to community services or proximity to a grocery store – especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

During the pandemic we learned that those most likely to be hospitalized or die from the SARS-CoV-2 virus were also most likely to be experiencing inequities in social determinants of health. With this realization, policymakers are taking steps to enable easier capture of SDOH data in hospitals – leveraging health IT to improve equity in healthcare. 

With new ICD-10-CM codes for SDOH being published as early as October, get up to speed on what SDOH are and how they will play a more significant role in health IT going forward.   

What are social determinants of health? 

Social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that directly influence an individual’s health and health outcomes. Determined by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), SDOH are grouped into five key areas: 

  • Economic stability 
  • Education access and quality 
  • Health care access and quality 
  • Neighborhood and built environment 
  • Social community and context

What are some social factors that can impact one’s health?  

  • Ease of access to grocery stores with healthy food options 
  • Ability to use public transportation and secure safe housing 
  • Opportunities for work and access to education 

Why are social determinants of health important? 

Non-medical factors, such as those mentioned above, can determine up to 80% of an individual’s health outcomes – putting them at greater risk of poor health and reduced quality of life. Documenting SDOH are critical to developing equitable healthcare policies and services. 

Gathering this data will help move the dial closer to healthcare equity by providing leaders with the information they need to ensure communities have the appropriate resources to address their  needs. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is considering how to incorporate concepts for SDOH into payment programs that better reflect the health equity needs of patients. 

Why is healthcare focusing on social determinants of health?  

Policymakers are working to create standardized codes that would enable providers to document SDOH in order to incorporate SDOH factors into CMS payment programs to ensure equity in care delivery and improved patient outcomes.

Why haven’t SDOH previously been documented in healthcare settings? 

Historically, there have been few standardized clinical terms that providers can use to document social determinants of health, making the information difficult to capture. But some data is collected currently – like when a clinician asks a patient if he or she feels safe at home. However, current policy seeks to broaden the scope of social determinants of health and achieve a standardized codification across healthcare. 

What are some examples of how social and economic factors impact an individual’s health? 

Not having access to affordable, nutritional food – one SDOH – can significantly contribute to a host of medical problems ranging from malnutrition to obesity. Those dietary challenges can, in turn, lead to decreased life expectancy, depression, and stigmatization. And these comorbidities often negatively influence each other, compounding the problem. 

How can we use SDOH data? 

SDOH data can help identify geographic areas experiencing inequity and in need of interventions like community health programs. They can also help tackle hunger and homelessness more effectively, connect people with mental health services, show where telehealth services are needed, and much more. 

To learn more about the Biden administration’s focus on incorporating SDOH into policy, click here.

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