Opinion: Providers who address social determinants maximize patient outcomes

By Dr. Paul Melinkovich

Each year, Colorado graduates approximately 150 new medical students and our workforce includes many other dedicated health care professionals who are a fundamental component of our health care delivery system. We all work hard, day in and day out, to address the health care needs of our fellow Coloradans.

We are health care providers because we want to make people healthy. Yet, in a regular days work, we often get narrowly focused on making diagnoses, recommending treatments, staying on schedule and addressing only those symptoms that can be seen and heard inside our exam room. Our patients deserve better than that.

In reality, there are many issues that affect a patients health beyond the individuals current disease state. Patients lives are complicated and many factors interfere with their ability to get their health care needs met or to follow our directions. These social determinants of health, such as income, education, access to quality food and housing, and race or ethnicity, exert powerful influences in our patients lives before they ever set foot into our office. It is our responsibility as providers to appreciate each patients unique situation and ability to follow through on a treatment plan or access necessary resources. We must be able to understand the barriers they face if we are to work with them to successfully address their needs.

Research shows that medical students undergo a significant decline in empathy as they enter their third year of medical school. This is a missing link that we should work to restore if we intend to serve our patients to the best of our abilities. Providers who consider and address the social factors affecting their patients health will have better outcomes, and that is what patients deserve and, what providers and ultimately what all Coloradans want.

A new video released today by the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved (CCMU), which I advised on, highlights some of the ways in which social determinants of health may affect a typical health care visit. It also brings together an impressive cast of Colorado providers who are thinking creatively and implementing common-sense solutions to address their patients needs more fully. Whether it is brand new information or an important reminder for you, I invite you to watch it and share it broadly.

Patients live outside the four walls of our clinic or hospital, and may run into problems accessing care without insurance, the funds to cover needed services or prescriptions, stable transportation to get them to and from appointments on time, or a good handle on the English language. With this video, it is my hope, as well as CCMUs goal, to start a conversation among the health care community about social determinants of health and how we can better equip ourselves to address them.

We are good providers, but we can be better. We can endeavor to understand the lives of our patientstheir whole, complicated, chaotic livesand seek new ways to involve them in their health care and overcoming the challenges they face. We can forge innovative partnerships that connect us to the broader community and work to change our own perceptions of compliance and patient education. We can do more than diagnosewe can heal and change lives.

Dr. Paul Melinkovich is the director of Community Health at Denver Health and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.