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The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on and magnified the socio-economic discrepancies that exist in disadvantaged populations. People who are economically vulnerable and may have food, safety and housing insecurities are often more likely to experience poor health outcomes. Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. SDOH can be grouped into 5 categories:

  • Economic stability
  • Education access and quality
  • Healthcare access and quality
  • Neighborhood/environment
  • Social/community

These five components of a person’s social makeup all impact their health and well-being. Those who are economically challenged may lack access to healthy foods and safe housing. Those who attended poorly performing schools may be less likely to qualify for safe jobs, making them more susceptible to health issues. People who lack health insurance may be less likely to seek recommended healthcare screenings. People who live in neighborhoods with high rates of violence or unsafe water may face greater risks for health problems. And those who are most vulnerable, often lack positive relationships at home, work and in their communities. People who face challenges in one or more of these categories are likely to experience disparities in healthcare and may be at increased risk of poor health outcomes.

Along comes the “Data for Good” movement
“Data for Good”, a term inspired by Datakind.org which connects data scientists with high-impact social organizations to enable positive change, has quickly become a social movement. Data analytics has long been credited with the creation of transformational changes in wide-ranging industries. In the business world, data-driven insights are regularly used to optimize operations, cut costs, and increase profits. Now, aided by the strength of this compassionate social movement, the healthcare industry is at a transformational inflection point and is poised to seize upon the opportunity to leverage the power of data for something even more important – social good!

The concept isn’t complicated. Data that is collected through mobile phones, websites and other sources can be mined, understood, and harnessed to gain new insights that can be used to service humanity. Data analytics can be leveraged to reduce health disparities, leading to improvements in patient outcomes for economically disadvantaged populations. From battling hunger to advocating for the well-being of children to reducing health disparities in underserved communities, it turns out that the same algorithms and techniques that companies use to boost profits can be leveraged by mission-driven organizations to improve the world. While the news is full of stories about personal data being stolen and used to bring hardship to others, it is refreshing to know that a more “empathetic use of data” is also on the rise.

Digital Transformation
In some respects, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for digital transformation in the healthcare industry by triggering the increased use of digital options. Fueled by pandemic demand, telemedicine has become critical in helping providers monitor patient health remotely to get patients the care they need faster.

In addition to bringing about self-service technologies such as those now used by patients to access their health records, investments in digital technologies have made it possible to use information, analytics and AI capabilities to leverage data to improve patient outcomes on a whole new level. The handling of healthcare data has become so sophisticated that, in the hands of the right data scientists and informaticists, it can be used to create opportunities for transformational change.

Using Data to Improve Outcomes for Disadvantaged Patients
Healthcare organizations are already utilizing SDOH data – such as where patients live, their financial circumstances and their access to affordable, nutritious foods – to impact health outcomes. For example, Dallas, Texas-based Parkland Hospital & Health System uses SDOH data to guide prevention and clinical efforts to reduce incidents of breast cancer (see full report). Using data generated by an independent collaborator, Parkland identifies women at risk for breast cancer who are economically vulnerable and experience challenges accessing care. Based on insights from the data, the health system:

  • provides information to case managers, nurses and clinicians on which patients may need food pantry vouchers, housing referrals or transportation assistance to supplement clinical and pharmacological interventions.
  • targets its outreach campaigns to neighborhoods where patients with the most need live, deploying mobile mammography units where the impact is likely to be greatest.

“We have raised the bar on how we can really improve our outreach and use data to make decisions in designing interventions to reduce disparities,” says Teresita Oaks, Director of Parkland Hospital’s Community Health Programs.

Improving clinical health outcomes is only part of the story. The patient experience along the healthcare journey is as important as the medical outcome. This is especially true for the most vulnerable patients. Those who lack health insurance, can’t afford their medications or face challenges finding safe and affordable transportation to medical appointments, are more likely to have detrimental patient experiences and, consequently, may be less likely to pursue preventive healthcare measures or treatments for existing conditions. SDOH data can be used to predict probable healthcare challenges so they can be mitigated. Deploying mobile healthcare units to underserved neighborhoods is an example of how such challenges can be addressed after being identified through the power of data analytics.

In Part 2 of our “Data for Good” blog series, The Northridge Group will examine the power of data analytics and how it’s advancing the patient experience for all consumers of healthcare. To learn how your organization can improve healthcare outcomes, contact us.

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