Moving America Forward

Back to Basics: How One Health Nonprofit is Rethinking Clinical Care

May 15, 2014
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Back to Basics: How One Health Nonprofit is Rethinking Clinical Care
Volunteers with Health Leads work together and assist patients at the Harriet Lane Clinic in Baltimore, MD. Matt Moyer via Health Leads USA
Health Leads is proving that sometimes the simple things are just what the doctor ordered.

As Americans adjust to a new healthcare system, some providers are beginning to dig deeper into the social conditions that may lead a patient to seek medical treatment in the first place. They’re finding that sometimes, a prescribed antibiotic is simply not the answer.

That’s the thinking at Health Leads, a Boston-based organization that partners with healthcare institutions to provide non-medical assistance for vulnerable patients.

Why this new method of treatment? Too often, doctors end up prescribing medication, but instead of getting better, the patient actually worsens as he or she continues to live in poor conditions. The cyclical nature of this process leads to patients returning to seek more treatment, which then becomes a costly venture for hospitals. (For example, instead of giving medication to someone living in a car, what that patient may really need is access to proper housing or heat instead.) But what if doctors “prescribed” healthy food, housing or other basic needs?

MORE: The Checklist That Can Reform Healthcare

At Health Leads’s institutions, after seeing a doctor, patients are directed to meet with volunteer “advocates,” which typically are college students. These volunteers work with these patients to get them better access to public benefits and community resources. Their goal, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is to transform the way institutions deliver health care by addressing how social factors can shape healthy living.

But the program, which connects 1,000 student volunteers with 14,000 patients and families, is keeping its focus small. Rather than expanding on a large scale, the project is partnering with just a few institutions — such as academic medical centers and for-profit hospitals — to create models for other institutions to emulate. Health Leads is also focusing on collecting data from its partnerships to further support transformation across the health care industry.

“Going small may not be glamorous,” Health Leads’s Rebecca Onie, Sarah Di Troia and Sonia Sarkar write. “But if we can couple a powerful on-the-ground demonstration with pathways to change the sector, we will have the opportunity at last to transform health care for patients, physicians, and us all.”

While addressing social conditions like public safety, economic inequality, and food security is nothing new, it’s important to see organizations like Health Leads make the connections between healthy living and health care.

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