Monday, May 7, 2018

Supporting our patients' health outside of the office

- Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH

Our patients' incomes, neighborhoods, and educational levels impact their health at least as much, if not more, than the interventions we discuss with them within our practice settings. Identifying patients who are struggling with housing, bills, child care, and/or safety might feel like a daunting task, though, and connecting them to helpful resources can feel overwhelming. A new toolkit released by the AAFP can make these tasks manageable; The EveryONE Project provides screening tools to help family physicians screen for social determinants of health (SDOH) and also connect patients to local resources.

The EveryONE Project website contains links to screen patients for SDOH challenges, a guide to patient resources, and planning tools for your office (or practice setting) to implement these changes. Each of these links provides more in-depth background material, a robust list of specific suggestions, and references to resources like Aunt Bertha, an online search engine that lists social services by zip code. These resources simplify connecting individual patients to local resources. (If you're interested in community planning tools, check out the CDC's Tools for Putting Social Determinants of Health into Action.)

A 2017 AFP editorial, "Acting on Social Determinants of Health: A Primer for Family Physicians," includes additional suggestions to implement SDOH interventions and also gives examples of how doing so can benefit patients:
Rather than simply recommending that a patient eat better and exercise more, care teams can connect patients to a local community garden, low-cost exercise resources (e.g., YMCA), or neighborhood walking groups. As another example, knowing that a patient lives in a neighborhood with old housing may prompt a physician to proactively screen for lead exposure based on elevated community risk. 
Perhaps a staff member in your office, or a visiting nursing or medical student, might compile a list of local resources where you practice, starting with tools like Aunt Bertha. Perhaps your practice might identify a champion to work through The EveryONE Project's assessment checklist. Or, perhaps your practice has a best practice to share with other Community Blog readers - please do so in the comment section below. The AFP By Topic on Health Maintenance and Counseling includes tools to deepen your understanding of your patients' unique situation via an in-depth family history and spiritual assessment as well.

If our goal is whole person health, then including SDOH assessment into our practices is essential. No advanced training in public health or social work is necessary to use these tools. As Sir Michael Marmot said, quoted in the The EveryONE Project Guide to Social Needs Screening Tool and Resources, "Why treat people and send them back to the conditions that made them sick in the first place?"

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