Why Social Determinants of Health Hold the Key to Employee Wellness

When most people think about staying healthy, the first things that spring to mind are cutting down on fast food, logging some hours on the treadmill and remembering to go in for a yearly physical. Genetics might also enter the equation. However, 50 percent of health outcomes are actually driven by something else: social, economic and environmental factors referred to as social determinants of health. Recognizing the numerous components that make up health — including education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety, air and water quality, housing and access to transportation — helps providers and insurers keep your employees healthy and productive.

It’s impossible to truly improve health care outcomes and contain health care costs without understanding why costs are so high and outcomes are so poor for certain populations. Knowing what social determinants correlate with high costs and poor outcomes makes it possible to design appropriate and effective interventions.

How Providers and Payers Use Social Determinants of Health

Social determinants are important for providers because they support a value-based care model that rewards high-quality, low-cost care. If providers can identify patients with attributes that research indicates correlate with poor health outcomes, they can intervene as early as possible to keep these individuals healthy and out of high-cost care settings. For example, this might mean assigning care coordinators or patient navigators, enrolling patients in chronic care management programs or connecting patients with behavioral health specialists.

Just like providers, insurers can use social determinants to remove barriers to care and tailor health interventions for various communities. In particular, health plans can:

  • Collect data on health care disparities among members
  • Share this data with providers to improve care quality
  • Create programs and benefits that engage consumers in managing their health
  • Ensure member access to high-quality, culturally competent providers
  • Reward providers for engaging in value-based care models

Why Social Determinants of Health Matter to Employers

For you, this information doesn’t have to stay in the abstract. Your business can turn it into actionable insights that keep employees healthier and control health care costs. When incorporated into an employee wellness program, social determinant data can help reduce absenteeism and improve employee satisfaction, retention and productivity.

Think about your employees. For example, do many of them live in a food desert? If so, they might face nutrition deficits. Consider broadening their access to nutritionally dense foods like nuts and vegetables by providing healthy snack options in the cafeteria or vending machines. Employees who live in high-crime areas may find it difficult to exercise outdoors, which in turn could raise the risk for various chronic conditions. Offering lunchtime fitness programs such as yoga or meditation can give your staff the opportunity to focus on wellness within their existing schedules. If your workforce tends to live in rural areas, employees could have trouble seeing a doctor to perform annual wellness visits and screenings. You can help improve their preventive health strategies with onsite medical screenings and by highlighting your health plan offering’s telemedicine option, if available.

These examples might apply to your business, but each workforce has a unique set of barriers keeping them from staying healthy. Think about your employees and what kinds of obstacles they face. Ask:

  • What type of health care disparities exist in your workforce?
  • What internal programs and interventions can you design to address these disparities?
  • Does your health plan provide at-risk populations with sufficient support through health and wellness benefits?

Achieving health and wellness across populations takes a team approach. When employers, providers and insurers take social determinants of health into consideration, value-based care is better able to make health care more accessible and effective for all employees regardless of social, economic or environmental status.

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