Addressing social determinants of health has a huge impact

As a critical component of overall health, the role of social determinants of health and the barriers they pose are often overlooked.

“From a health care perspective, we need to think about whole health, not just physical and behavioral, but also social,” says Amy Shannon, LSW, director, Social Determinants of Health Program and Products for Highmark Health, parent company of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “It’s critical to identify the resources available for social health to support the best possible outcomes in a member’s health journey.”

Smart Business spoke with Shannon about how addressing social determinants of health can improve outcomes, and what employers can do to help.

What are social determinants of health?

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are conditions in which people are born, work, live and age, along with social and economic factors that can impact health. SDOH include access to food, transportation, stable housing and childcare. It really knows no boundaries.

These factors affect people differently, but they can affect every race, gender, ethnicity and income level and have a much larger impact on health outcomes than individual risk factors. Because of these factors, oftentimes people may not have the finances to afford medical expenses or access to transportation to see a doctor, or they lack access to fresh food, all of which can exacerbate existing conditions. The result can be a decline in health and subsequently affect a person’s ability to be focused and productive at work. This can create a vicious cycle if the person’s employment is impacted further affecting their finances.

How can access to social workers in a health plan improve outcomes?

Social workers can have a very personal conversation with someone about their day-to-day life. They assess the member’s needs and available supports, educate them on resources and guide them to make informed decisions that will improve their individual situation.

When needed, the social worker will help arrange services or connect the member to financial services, housing assistance, community food resources or other community resources. These resources can support a member in accessing things such as needed medication, transportation to an appointment or a food bank. This, in turn, can assist the member in avoiding a future ER visit or an admission.

What role can employers play in addressing social determinants of health?

Sometimes people do not know what they need, may be afraid to ask or are unsure what options are available to them. And often, it is really hard for a person to share with their employer that they are struggling with financial issues, housing, or even safety. It is a vulnerable place to be.

So, the key for employers is to know how to connect employees/members to those with whom they feel more comfortable talking to and with those who know about resources, like social workers. Offering a specific way to support them, such as a social work resource, can make it easier for someone to accept help. Employers need to touch base with their employees, educate them about their benefits, which include social work support, and guide them on how to connect when the time is right.

Your insurer can also provide confidential surveys that assess employees SDOH needs and then connect those with challenges to the social work team for further discussion around available resources. Employers can encourage employees to take these surveys to access help without disclosing their personal concerns to their employer.

Your most valuable resource is your employees. Providing support to an employee while they are at work is just as important as connecting them to the resources for what might be needed while they are not at work. This commitment to the employee and the team supports optimal health and productive engagement every day. ●

INSIGHTS Health Care is brought to you by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Amy Shannon

Director, SDOH Programs and Products
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