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Primary Care Physicians Link Social Barriers to Poor Health

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, December 8, 2011

Primary care physicians say pervasive and stubborn social barriers such as a lack of access to adequate housing, transportation, and nutritious, affordable food may impact patient health as much as access to direct medical care, a survey shows.   

The online survey of 1,000 primary care physicians, including 310 pediatricians, was conducted in September and October on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"What really becomes clear is that when you think about providing care, we have to think about more than just the medical service delivery system," Jane Lowe, team director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at RWJF tells HealthLeaders Media.

"We have to think about how do we help physicians connect their patients to other providers or to services that are going to have as much impact on their health outcomes as the physician visit will have?"

They survey found that:

  • 85% of physicians say unmet social needs are directly leading to worse health for all Americans.
  • 85% of physicians say patients' social needs are as important to address as their medical conditions. This is especially true for physicians (or 95%) serving patients in low-income, urban communities. 
  • 76% of physicians want the healthcare system to cover the costs associated with connecting patients to services that meet their social needs if a physician deems it important for overall health.
  • Only 20% of physicians feel confident or very confident in their ability to address their patients' unmet social needs.
  • Physicians said that if they had the power to write prescriptions to address social needs, these would represent 1 out of every 7 prescriptions they write— or an average of 26 additional prescriptions per week.

Lowe says the survey reflects a tremendous frustration on the part of primary care physicians who every day see barriers to good health that their patients face in the world beyond the office visit.

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