3 Steps to Addressing Socioeconomic Barriers to Achieve Better Outcomes

Meet Sonia: she’s an 86-year-old woman born in Poland, who has outlived her husband, suffers from depression and diabetes and has just been discharged from hospital following surgery. She’s unable to afford the medication prescribed to her and has few family members or friends around to help her safely travel to a neighbourhood clinic and receive the proper follow-up care.

Sonia represents the dilemma many Ontario seniors will face in the coming years. We know that by 2030, 70 per cent of Ontario seniors will be living with two or more chronic conditions, similar to Sonia. What we don’t know is how many seniors like Sonia are being disadvantaged because of their socioeconomic living conditions. The fact that she has trouble communicating in English, that she has a small support network, and that she lives on a small income means she’s more likely to experience poorer health outcomes than individuals without these types of variables.

I believe that too few health organizations consider the added dimension of socioeconomic living conditions. Under tremendous pressures, teams work diligently to treat episodes of illness but often neglect important socioeconomic factors. When we are blind to these issues, we negatively affect the plan of care and the health outcomes patients strive to achieve.

1. Know your patients’ complete story and the neighborhood in which they live

Providing quality health care is no longer about simply shortening patients’ length of stay in hospital and getting them home as quickly as possible. Nor is it simply about caring for patients’ clinical needs. Only by tailoring care models in all care settings to specific populations, can we really meet the needs of individuals like Sonia.

The CCAC’s Community Capacity Plan, developed in collaboration with the Mississauga Halton LHIN, Central West LHIN and Central West CCAC, revealed that the care coordination we provide should be tailored to individuals based on: their diagnosis, the neighbourhood in which they live and other social determinants of health – those social and economic factors, including education level, income, race, gender, sexual orientation and place of residence, which influence health and wellbeing.

If we don’t address social determinants of health and the contributing factors in each patient’s situation, we’re putting people like Sonia at higher risk of health complications, poorer quality of life, hospital admissions and readmissions and avoidable emergency department visits.

The evidence supports this. Data from the Mississauga Halton Community Capacity Plan found that seniors from the highest-risk Socio-Economic and Cultural (SEC) group were more likely to move to institutional care, or long-term care, than those from low SEC groups. They were also 40 per cent more likely to visit hospital emergency departments than individuals with low SEC status.

These at-risk patients can’t afford to follow health care direction without the necessary resources. If their income is used to support five family members, or if they live at home with a small support network like Sonia, priorities are more likely to focus on paying rent and purchasing food than on filling prescriptions or paying for transportation to a health clinic, for example.

In fact, a Health Quality Ontario report found that one in 12 Ontarians surveyed, aged 55 years and older, didn’t fill their prescriptions or skipped a dose because of cost, while another study found that one in eight Canadians between 55 and 64 years old will occasionally skip prescription medications for the same reasons. If we know patients can’t afford their medications, we should certainly be approaching their care differently.

As I mentioned in my first post, “5 Features of a Sustainable, Integrated Health Care System,” bringing care out of institutions and closer to patients’ homes lets us tackle socioeconomic obstacles. By asking the right questions in all care settings, we can move beyond clinical diagnoses, to having meaningful conversations with patients, engaging their families, and providing more comprehensive support services at home, in the community and in hospital.

2. Identify individual and systemic barriers that create inequities

After implementing the CCAC’s Care Coordination Program of Work a recommendation from the Community Capacity Plan – we saw the realignment of care coordination teams and service providers within the Mississauga Halton region. We identified 26 neighbourhoods of roughly 10 square kilometres each, as relevant for organizing care delivery in the community setting.

We now have teams who will really know the gaps that exist, which will allow them to better provide comprehensive care in neighbourhoods in which their patients live. For example, high utilization of certain services in a region helps us uncover the specific challenges the population in the area faces. Teams can proactively consider not only the clinical care needs but the supports required to address the SEC issues that impact a patient’s care plan.

The questions now are, how can we overcome the challenges of involving family physicians, pharmacists, nurses, hospital physicians, and others in the continuum of care, so that we can collectively wrap care around individuals more effectively and efficiently? How do we create high-performing care teams across the diversity of the independent programs and services that are available in the community?

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Medical Director of Underserved Populations at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), led an initiative to identify ways in which we can improve health equity in the country. He helped develop the following eight questions that health care professionals can ask their patients during the assessment process, which would then be shared with other health professionals:

  1. What language would you feel most comfortable speaking in with your health care provider?
  2. Were you born in Canada? (If no, what year did you arrive?)
  3. Which of the following best describes your racial or ethnic group? (list provided)
  4. Do you have any of the following disabilities? (list provided)
  5. What is your gender?
  6. What is your sexual orientation?
  7. What was your total family income before taxes last year?
  8. How many people does this income support?

These are questions that we don’t traditionally think about asking. They can be asked once by any health care professional conducting a patient’s initial assessment – either a family doctor, hospital discharge planner, nurse or care coordinator. The value of asking these questions is that health care professionals are able to have patients’ socioeconomic information at their fingertips. When they meet with patients for the first time, they will have a deeper understanding of their needs and the kinds of individualized questions to ask, to build an effective care plan that will enable patients achieve their health goals.

By acting on this data, we’re better equipped to reduce unnecessary hospital and emergency department visits and entry to long-term care. We’re also able to identify trends with patients over time, to understand risks to certain populations in the region, and to connect patients with the appropriate services in their neighbourhood.

Some organizations have begun collecting data on patients’ socioeconomic situations using these eight questions. Now we need to find a way to consolidate and share this information with everyone involved in a person’s care. As of today, we don’t have the means to share SEC scores at a patient level. Even though care providers may understand the importance of SEC status, when information isn’t shared, we see ourselves entering into the familiar cycle of asking patients to repeat their story over and over again.

The CCAC will continue using equity data collection to inform the delivery of quality care through its Care Coordination Program of Work, to ensure that care is wrapped around the patient at the neighbourhood level. Through our Client Health and Related Information System (CHRIS), we have the means to link with other systems and to share this information with those in the patient’s circle of care. Being able to share information effectively is one of the characteristics of high performing, patient-driven health systems, and leads to my third step to addressing socioeconomic barriers: effective collaboration

3. Bringing together clinical and social determinants of health through collaboration

Hospital physicians, clinicians, nurses, family physicians, care coordinators and others in the continuum of care must collaborate to help patients achieve what is most important to their wellbeing. Frankly, our patients expect this of their care team. We need to bring clinical and social determinants of health together.

By asking Sonia questions related to her socioeconomic status, we would know she feels more comfortable speaking Polish, that she is still mourning the loss of her husband, which led to her depression, that poor eating habits contributed to her type 2 diabetes and that she has a very small support system at home – issues that cannot be addressed through medication alone, but also through lifestyle changes, volunteer programs and other non-clinical supports.

Creating effective, accountable inter-professional teams through strong relationships with everybody in a patients’ circle of care is a must. As I mentioned in my previous post, “4 Ways Big Data Informs and Manages Health Care Performance,” we need an integrated system focused on system planning and patient-driven care delivery operations to ensure that individuals with the greatest needs receive comprehensive, individualized care. This includes supporting care coordination, monitoring quality, patient outcomes and their experiences and service providers’ resource use.

Standardizing clinical care pathways – management plans that display goals for patients – are a great move forward to improving clinical care outcomes for Ontario residents. Knowing SEC information, which allows us to wrap necessary supports around patients to help them achieve expected outcomes, is necessary for the individualization of care plans.

In my next post, I’ll delve a little deeper into the importance of collaboration and the ways in which it can expand health care capacity.

What do you think? Are you collecting SEC data? How is it helping you provide more effective care?  

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