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Curbside Consult with Dr. Jayne 11/11/19

November 11, 2019 Dr. Jayne 2 Comments

My recent conversation with a local university student about how the US looks at public health efforts got me interested into digging in a little more into a local health system’s work to address social determinants of health. I reached out to a former colleague who is now in a leadership role. He asked to remain off the record, since not all of his views fully align with what he is working on as part of the health system’s efforts. I totally understand having to stay off the radar to keep your job, so I was happy to oblige.

One of the major pushes of the health system has been expanding access to care, whether it’s with a mobile unit to visit areas that don’t have providers or whether it’s creation of school-based clinics. They are finding that even those approaches sometimes aren’t enough.

One of the areas where they set up a school-based clinic has a high absenteeism rate, with girls posting higher numbers than boys. Digging deeper, they found that teen girls sometimes aren’t in school due to lack of access to menstrual products. As someone who has worked with a church group to sew reusable menstrual pad kits for girls in developing nations, this doesn’t seem like something we should be seeing in the US. The clinic set out to solicit donations for menstrual products, and guess what? The absentee numbers went down. It’s a great example of how we need to really understand all the factors that are driving health, education, and wellness.

This approach may resonate with practices who help care for high-risk patients by providing transportation or assist with obtaining housing or groceries. If patients aren’t able to meet their most basic needs, they’re not going to be focused on things higher up the hierarchy, like healthcare and medication.

My colleague said this approach is something he actually struggles with philosophically. Some programs focus on those individual social needs, but don’t look at how you need to go about improving the underlying social and economic situation in communities as a whole. The individually-focused interventions are cheaper than delivering more intense medical interventions for sure, but they don’t assist people who haven’t become patients yet or who aren’t in the healthcare system.

He recounted a recent meeting among community health stakeholders, where they spent nearly two hours debating and defining what they mean when they say “social determinants of health.” The phrase was being thrown around and meant different things to different people, and they felt it was important to get everyone on the same page.

Although I don’t doubt that it was probably a painful meeting, it sounds like it was necessary. As he was telling me the story, it reminded me about how people throw around “pop health” and “population health management” and various permutations that may not mean the same thing depending on who is using the phrases and where they’re coming from.

During one of their community-focused initiatives, they actually had quite a bit of resistance from a small segment of community members. Some felt that the hospital’s participation was a way of trying to “medicalize” issues that community activists want to have a much more social and/or services focus. Instead of heaving the health system lead the charge, they want to see it led by community centers, faith-based organizations, and other community-led groups.

In addition to concerns about medicalization, there were also concerns about the hospital staffers not reflecting the community demographic and the optics of having a primarily Caucasian outreach team working with a community whose makeup is predominantly African-American. That’s something that isn’t always thought about, but may certainly be part of how interventions are received.

Patients and community leaders are also skeptical about value-based care. Some see it as rationing by another name, especially when it’s being primarily led by the medical establishment. Others see it as a way for conglomerate health systems to increase their dominance, which can lead to the erosion of community-focused health services.

My colleague mentioned that he struggles a bit going back and forth between the community outreach projects and the health system’s flagship hospital, where he has an office. The hospital’s lobby looks more like a high-end hotel than a healthcare establishment, and executives regularly divvy up the organization’s luxury box tickets for events at the local stadium. When he sees what might be considered excesses, he immediately thinks of how many social services could be delivered using the money spent.

He also has a hard time wrapping his head around the half billion dollars that has been spent on a recent EHR implementation and associated consulting services when his repeated requests to add a social worker to his team have been rejected. He notes that the EHR project hasn’t been all bad since it has made it easier to obtain and use data about different outreach projects they’ve been doing. It’s been useful for clinical reminders and identifying gaps in care to try to optimize health for individual patients. They’ve also been able to use address data to refine locations for community-based health screenings and vaccination clinics. He notes that has been easier since his request for a 0.5 FTE data analyst position was approved.

Apparently there are some ongoing tensions with the local public health organizations, who feel that competing health systems are more about bringing attention to their facilities than about advocating for essential public health needs such as sanitation, preventive services, and immunizations. The health system is having a retreat in a couple of months to talk about its community health efforts and it will be interesting to check in with him and see if there are any major changes to strategic direction or if the plans remain status quo.

I wonder what that retreat would look like if they invited public health leaders, or better yet, also included representatives from the other major healthcare players in town? Maybe that could lead to a more coordinated effort, but I’m just hypothesizing. I wish there were words to describe the eye-roll that resulted when I made that suggestion.


On a side note, I wanted to say thank you to all our readers who are veterans and also to their families and loved ones. We appreciate your service and your sacrifice.

How does your organization integrate with the local public health infrastructure? Is it working, or are there suggestions you would offer? Leave a comment or email me.


Email Dr. Jayne.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. This is a very important discussion and highlights some key issues which we need to address in how we implement and ultimately value Health Information Technology. As someone who has worked on both sides of this discussion implementing HIT for the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, I am sensitive to the concerns around opportunity costs when applying tech to resource-poor settings. I believe that HIT implemented correctly can be tremendously empowering, both in high and low resource settings. The key is understanding that HIT is a communication medium and not just a data collection tool. It can foster improved understanding of problems, collaboration on solutions, and better engagement with all parties. Use of a simple open source medical record (OpenMRS) in Uganda helped us identify that 65% of patients with fever and negative malaria tests were still sent out the door with antimalarial treatment. Use the tool to teach the providers, and implement a more careful workflow process reduced that number to like 15% and the money saved in expensive medications would have paid for the entire information system. There are lots of examples of integrated mHealth and clinical systems that allow community health workers to care for patients at home with recommendations and data from a longitudinal record. When those same patients arrive with an illness, the clinic can see everything that was going on at home based on the CHW records. I learned something from Participatory Rural Appraisal for health issues in Kenya… including people in assessing and identifying both the problems and the solutions makes for a more sustainable system. HIT can provide a critical communicative link between patients, providers and community stakeholders.

  2. Some programs focus on those individual social needs, but don’t look at how you need to go about improving the underlying social and economic situation in communities as a whole. The individually-focused interventions are cheaper than delivering more intense medical interventions for sure, but they don’t assist people who haven’t become patients yet or who aren’t in the healthcare system.

    The best way that most economic development agencies have found to lift families out of generational poverty in under-developed economies is to educate girls and women. Across the board, giving women access to education leads them to start business that provide economic stimulus to their entire community. Giving menstrual products to teen girls has proven to do just that. Giving a girl the opportunity to get an education is the fastest method to improving her life and the lives of those who depend on her.

    It is the same reason that diaper banks have proven to reduce sick baby visits and increase teen mothers’ ability to attend classes and work. A child who is constantly ill due to not being able to have a clean diaper is a drain on their parent. The parent can’t improve their economic situation if they can’t go to school & work.

    Just because a program is focused at the individual level doesn’t meant that it won’t lift up the community. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

    If they want to know what would help most of their potential constituency, they need to ask them. Would a low-cost ride share program that actually goes to the places that people work help? Would a diaper bank/sanitary products bank help? What about toothbrushes & toothpaste? Until you know the needs that are unaddressed, they will continue to spin their wheels in a low-key turf war.

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