Kaiser study finds unmet social needs are a barrier to care

At a time when more healthcare stakeholders are looking to integrate care across providers and provide better care coordination for patients, addressing social determinants of health is gaining prominence. For example, how can patients be expected to follow up with their doctors if they don’t have safe housing or nutritional food on a daily basis?

Unmet social needs are a significant barrier to healthcare, according to a recent survey from Kaiser Permanente, which asked people about barriers they face in meeting social needs and how those barriers impact their access to care.

A whopping 68% of Americans surveyed said they had at least one unmet social need in the past year, and more than a quarter said an unmet social need was a barrier to care. When it comes to prioritizing, 21% of Americans said they would pay for food or rent over seeing a doctor or getting medical attention.

The effect on health when social needs are unmet is detrimental––and could be costlier overall. Those with unmet social needs were twice as likely to rate their health as fair or poor compared to those who did not have needs. For most Americans––89%––safe and stable housing is very or extremely important to health, while 80% agree that reliable transportation is also important. Nearly 40% of respondents said they frequently or occasionally experienced stress over accessing food for balanced meals, while 35% were stressed over housing.

In addition, nearly 100% of Americans want doctors to ask them about their social needs, as it can play a major role in overall health. Doctors also might be able to connect their patients with resources to meet their social needs and improve their health.

The impact of unmet social needs on health is why several healthcare providers, including Kaiser Permanente and some Medicare Advantage plans are offering better access to food security, transportation and even housing options. CMS even updated its benefits to allow Medicare Advantage plans more flexibility in providing some of these services, along with more in-home care, to help keep enrollees healthier and more likely to remain in their homes without a detrimental health event.

For its part, Kaiser Permanente has launched its first location of its Thrive Local social needs resource network in the Northwest Region, including Oregon and southwest Washington State.

“We are eager to implement this network into our care delivery system because we know closing social care gaps will improve health outcomes,” Northwest Permanente CEO Imelda Dacones, MD, said in a statement. “Social determinants of health, or the economic and social conditions that influence health, drive most health outcomes. To address and create total health, we, as physicians, must have systems and networks that address our patients’ social needs.”