Enabling Greater Connected Care with Social Determinants of Health and Digital Health Solutions

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Swanand Prabhutendolkar

By Dhaval Shah, Sr. Vice President & Head of Medical Technology, CitiusTech

Swanand Prabhutendolkar, Sr. Vice President & Head of Data Management, CitiusTech

An integral part of effective healthcare delivery involves understanding the social and environmental factors that impact a patient’s life outside the medical care system. More and more, healthcare organizations are realizing the profound effect these factors—also known as social determinants of health (SDOH)—have on a patient’s overall wellness. For instance, it is estimated that 80% of a child’s degree of health is due to SDOH and not the medical care they receive. 

Despite the critical role of SDOH, providers have not been consistent about recognizing and documenting these factors for a specific patient or even a population of patients. Yet, having this information should be a fundamental aspect of their efforts to build healthier populations and larger connected care networks. When providers have insight into the conditions in which people live, learn, work and play, they can more effectively identify health risks and respond with more proactive interventions. 

The 2020 Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology’s (ONC) Interoperability Standards Advisory (ISA) recognizes the importance of SDOH data and acknowledges these factors are still underrepresented in care coordination and delivery. To encourage organizations to capture this data more effectively, ISA has officially included SDOH metrics in their advisory for future interoperability needs.  

What’s standing in the way of SDOH data capture?

The challenge in obtaining, aggregating, and integrating SDOH data is that this type of information often comes from non-traditional sources to which, historically, providers have not had access. Digital health solutions represent one particularly notable and flourishing source. User-centric tools such as mobile health apps, telehealth offerings and IoT and biometrics devices, including wearables, are paving the way for increased patient health engagement and connected care options and helping providers better understand patients’ social-environmental context. Unfortunately, a lack of interoperability with these solutions is making it difficult for providers to see the data they capture and understand what that information means in terms of the dynamics affecting a patient’s health. 

Strengthening connections with digital health solutions

The need for new, more connected and secure methods to exchange digital health data has never been more important. With the rapid changes in how and where healthcare is provided in response to COVID-19, and the delays in care that are happening when people postpone non-emergent appointments and procedures, reliably connecting with patients outside of the on-site appointment is becoming imperative. As such, heightened interoperability with digital health solutions is paramount to ensure seamless data integration across the clinical value chain. 

To enable greater interoperability, digital health solutions will need appropriate capabilities to feed data into payer and provider portals to make the information they collect more available to clinicians for decision-making, especially for those patients with chronic conditions. Providing useful data for clinicians means making it easier for them to access, understand and act upon the information. While the push for actionable data isn’t new, the volume and variety of data coming from the multitude of digital sources stand to impact data teams in new ways. 

Where do we go from here?

Achieving seamless, secure, standards-driven information exchange with new and emerging digital solutions requires careful planning and forethought. Healthcare IT leaders must clearly define and manage the approach to data during product implementation, ensure robust interface development and monitoring, enable smooth data integration and migration, and allow for unstructured, semi-structured and structured data processing. Putting these elements in place can ensure the right data will be incorporated and used for decision-making to address the SDOH-fueled health risks an individual, patient population or community may be facing. 

Additionally, IT leaders need to continuously invest in their teams to regularly upgrade their skills as emerging technology trends continue to evolve. This includes preparing staff to fully understand and apply API-based standards, FHIR and advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Doing so can augment an organization’s ability to create an enterprise interoperability strategy that is ready and able to support the influx of SDOH data, from whatever digital system it originates.

The impetus for change is only going to grow 

Ultimately, by enabling more comprehensive system interoperability that readily pairs existing healthcare IT with digital health solutions, organizations can make inroads to improving patient, population, and community health. As we continue to respond to the global public health crisis, the ability to understand the social, environmental, and physical conditions that impact health will only grow in importance. Beyond COVID-19, it’s highly likely the shifts we’re experiencing in healthcare delivery will remain – with digital solutions like telehealth, mobile apps and other options becoming part of the “new normal.” Organizations that evolve their healthcare technology approach to support greater interoperability that enables clear and consistent access to new digital technologies will be better positioned to make a lasting impact.  

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