Health Leads Helps Fill Gap Between Unmet Social Needs and Good Health

Dec 8, 2011, 12:00 PM, Posted by

Four out of five physicians say unmet social needs are directly leading to worse health for Americans, according to a new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey conducted in fall 2011. Health Leads, a grantee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has pioneered a model for enabling physicians and other clinicians to “prescribe” the basic resources their patients need to be healthy. Health Leads Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Rebecca Onie discusses the poll findings.


Human Capital Blog: According to the survey, doctors believe unmet social needs are directly leading to worse health for Americans, and within the current health care system, they are not confident they have the capacity to address those social needs. How does Health Leads help to address this gap?

Rebecca Onie: For Health Leads, this survey validates and quantifies what we’ve been hearing from doctors anecdotally for years. Every day in America, doctors prescribe medications to patients who might have no food at home or are living in a car—many of these patients will return with more serious and often more costly illnesses. This survey documents physicians’ frustrations with this reality on the front lines of our health care system.

Health Leads envisions a new model for health care delivery that addresses those very frustrations in which patients’ basic resource needs — such as food, housing, and heating assistance — are addressed as a standard part of patient care. In the clinics where we work, Health Leads enables physicians and other health care providers to “prescribe” such resources just as they do medication. Patients take their “prescriptions” to the clinic waiting room, where Health Leads’ college volunteers work with patients to help “fill” them by connecting patients to resources.

HCB: Three out of four physicians surveyed wish the health care system would help pay for the costs associated with connecting patients to services that would address their social living needs. What is Health Leads’ perspective?

Onie: We agree that the health care system should help pay for resource connections — as it does for any other specialty referral. There are a number of ways in which creating patient resource connections adds real value to hospitals and health centers. For example, by empowering physicians to address the real drivers of patient health, Health Leads improves provider satisfaction and patient satisfaction. In addition, by deploying Health Leads or models like it, physicians and other health care providers can do what they are uniquely trained to do – and not dedicate their valuable time to tracking down the nearest exercise program or food pantry. Indeed, recent research at the Dimock Center, one of Health Leads’ partner clinics, indicates the social worker gained 50 percent more therapeutic billable hours with the introduction of the Health Leads model.

HCB: How is Health Leads helping to shape a new health care workforce?

Onie: Since launching in 1996, Health Leads has recruited, trained, and deployed thousands of college volunteers to enable hospitals and health centers to improve health, not just manage disease. This year, our corps of nearly 1,000 volunteers is projected to assist 9,500 low-income patients and their families in accessing the resources they need to be healthy.

Health Leads is producing a pipeline of new leaders who will have both the conviction and the ability to tackle the most challenging questions in health care — especially those facing the most vulnerable patient populations. In 2011, 86 percent of Health Leads graduates entered jobs or graduate study in the fields of health and poverty.

As they become front-line providers serving low-income patients – as well as clinic directors and health care administrators – our alumni reach out to us, wanting to know why there are no Health Leads desks in their clinics, asking, “how can I practice medicine without it?” At the same time, Health Leads is also producing hundreds of public health practitioners, social entrepreneurs, nonprofit professionals, and policymakers who bring a shared vision for health care to their respective roles.

Health Leads, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, operates in 21 clinics in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Providence, R.I., New York and Washington, D.C. This year Health Leads anticipates connecting 9,500 low-income patients with the basic resources they need to be healthy.

The survey was conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation between September 16 and October 13, 2011 among 1,000 physicians. Read more about the results of the Physicians Poll.

Photo credit: Michael Collopy, Skoll World Forum

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.