With about 7.5 billion people on the planet, you might think that some of them are bound to be the same — except, of course, they’re not. When you take into account people’s environment, education, experiences, and DNA, everyone is a little different. So wouldn’t it make sense for doctors to treat each patient as an individual?
Physicians have traditionally collected hard data: height, weight, heart rate, etc. And while that baseline data is important, there are other questions that can help healthcare providers get to know their patients better on a personal level.
For example, questions about a patient’s living environment and social behaviors. After all, 60 percent of factors attributed to premature death are linked to some combination of those two things. Patient care and satisfaction could improve significantly if providers used technology to get that information at the same time they recorded a patient’s pulse.
Let’s say we have two 72-year-old female patients with the same general health status — both with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These two women will most likely have statistically different risks of readmission to a hospital based on their living situation, income, education, and access to care beyond their primary provider.
If a doctor had environmental and socioeconomic information on these patients, would his or her treatment plan differ from one to the other? Most likely.
There are organizational benefits to this strategy, too: Healthcare costs would drop. According to Humana, providers reduce overall healthcare spending by 34 percent when they identify and prevent chronic diseases early. Because food, locale, relationships, and even access to transportation all contribute to an individual’s health and well-being, a more comprehensive history of a patient’s lifestyle benefits everyone.
Reading the signs.
Of course, providers already collect a range of useful data. Things like age, marital status, alcohol or tobacco use, activity level, and medical history can all be important health indicators.
Understanding the actual data points often lead physicians to dive deeper. But besides a note in a patient’s file, the findings aren’t necessarily being captured in a statistical or analytical format, which means they’re often without context.
There’s also a lack of consistency among providers.
An answer to one of the standard questions will prompt different follow-up questions from physician to physician. Given the day, a question might not elicit any additional questions at all.
If healthcare providers were to utilize technology to take a more systematic approach to discovering social determinants of health data they’d be in a much better position to provide tailored care to each patient.
Consider how the following data points could inform a patient’s treatment plan:
Access to care:
This includes things like access to transportation, the density of primary care physicians in the area, the number of hospitals, the number of pharmacies, etc.
Living situation and support network:
This takes into account the people in a patient’s life. Physicians can ask whether a patient is living alone, with a spouse, with adult children, in a retirement community, in assisted living, etc. This category would also include the distance from adult children and the number of social organizations available.
This includes education, income, wealth, etc.
Lifestyle and environment:
This includes the density of grocery stores, fast food restaurants, fitness centers, parks, and other open spaces. It also includes neighborhood walkability, air quality indices, the local prevalence of smoking, and the availability of activities indicating an active lifestyle.
With the right lifestyle data, healthcare organizations can not only become more responsive to individual patient needs, but they can also become more agile in their overall business strategies.
When doctors, nurses, and staff start digging beyond the standard questions, providers can expect to see the following changes:
1. Healthier outcomes.
Care decisions improve when physicians have a fuller view of a patient’s lifestyle. For example, a patient without easy access to transportation and no nearby pharmacy doesn’t just need a prescription; he or she also needs a way to fill it. Setting up a mail-order refill would mitigate the risk of that patient not adhering to his or her care plan. When providers treat the patient as a whole, they can address the lifestyle and socioeconomic factors that can get in the way of healthier outcomes.
2. Competitive advantage.
Early adopters almost always have the competitive advantage over late adopters. If providers began asking patients better, smarter questions, they would have access to data that competitors wouldn’t. Then, once physicians used that data and uncovered insights, they’d be able to respond to patients’ demands more quickly and completely than a competitor. Patients would then leave healthier and happier.
3. Financial impact.
When they gather lifestyle information from patients, physicians can see the factors that might drive up readmission risk and change the course of treatment. And depending on a provider’s readmission rate, it could find itself penalized a certain percentage of reimbursement from Medicare. Gathering lifestyle data will also give providers the opportunity to discover signs of an increased risk for certain chronic diseases that inflate the long-term cost of care.
A treatment plan that works well for a patient with one lifestyle won’t necessarily work for another patient. By using technology to dig a little bit deeper and seeking out lifestyle data, healthcare providers will be able to serve patients more effectively and more efficiently.