- Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
Primary care physicians and educators are increasingly recognizing the usefulness of assessing social determinants of health (defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play) during health care encounters. A recent National Academy of Medicine discussion paper described the Accountable Health Communities Screening Tool, developed by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to identify and address five domains of health-related social needs: housing instability, food insecurity, transportation difficulties, utility assistance needs, and interpersonal safety. Since 2011, students at Morehouse School of Medicine and Georgia State University College of Law have participated in an interprofessional medical-legal curriculum; surveys suggested that medical students who completed the curriculum were more likely to screen for social determinants of health and refer patients to legal resources. In March, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) launched its Center for Diversity and Health Equity, whose planned activities will include
- evaluating current research on the social determinants of health and health equity;
- promoting evidence-based community and policy changes that address the social determinants of health and health equity; and
- developing practical tools and resources to equip family physicians and their teams to help patients, families, and communities.
In an editorial in the June 1 issue of American Family Physician, Drs. Lauren Hughes and Sonja Likumahuwa-Ackman add another potential dimension for action on social determinants of health by introducing the concept of "community vital signs." In contrast to data collected directly from patients, the authors write,
Community-level data are acquired from public data sources such as census reports, disease surveillance, and vital statistics records. When geocoded and linked to individual data, community-level data are called community vital signs. Community vital signs convey patients' neighborhood health risks, such as crime rates, lack of walkability, and presence of environmental toxins. ... This enhanced knowledge about where patients live, learn, work, and play can help physicians tailor recommendations and target clinical services to maximize their impact. Rather than simply recommending that a patient eat better and exercise more, care teams can connect patients to a local community garden, low-cost exercise resources (e.g., YMCA), or neighborhood walking groups.
To get started using community-level data to improve patient care and population health, family physicians can consult The Practical Playbook and the AAFP's Community Health Resource Navigator. The editorial also provides a suggested five-step process for incorporating community vital signs into clinical practice.