Public Health and Health Systems Can Work Together to Address SDOH – Here’s How

by John Auerbach, MBA

Working Together SDOH

The momentum to tackle the social determinants of health is growing within the health care sector, where financial support is sometimes available to focus attention on identifying and helping to address the non-medical social and economic needs of patients. This new focus on the root causes of poor health is welcome, but for it to succeed the community-based resources and conditions necessary to support residents’ health must exist. In other words, without the availability of appropriate non-medical services and the right population-wide policies there is a real danger that health providers’ new focus on social determinants will fail.                              Working Together SDOH

To successfully address the social determinants of health at the community level requires the involvement of multiple sectors. Public health departments have the skills and experience to lead this collaboration and related capacity-building. Public health officials are accustomed to focusing on the total population and can be a convener of the multiple sectors (housing, transportation, schools, etc.) that impact the conditions in which people live. They can be a critical partner in health care’s growing interest in the social determinants, as I point out in a commentary published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, “Social Determinants of Health Can Only Be Addressed by a Multisector Spectrum of Activities.”

Here are five ways that public health departments and health systems can work together to help improve the social determinants of health.                      Working Together SDOH

1. Screen individuals for social and economic needs

Health systems can screen patients for their social, economic and safety needs. Public health departments can aggregate and analyze such data across facilities.

2. Refer individuals to agencies where their needs may be met

Health systems can attempt to address social needs or make referrals to community agencies. Public health departments can assist in assuring that community organizations, and other sectors are aware of the needed services across multiple health systems and are prepared to assist.

3. Take steps to invest in communities as an anchor organization

Health systems can train and hire community residents, contract with community organizations and invest in the local economy. Public health departments can collaborate with one or more anchor institutions to assist them in prioritizing such community-wide strategies.            Working Together SDOH

4. Support/finance services needed to address the social and economic needs

Public health departments and health systems can collaborate to demonstrate unmet social needs. They can each support action by public and/or private policymakers to increase funding for community agencies and organizations to fill the gaps.                          Working Together SDOH

5. Implement policies that prevent or reduce social and economic needs

Public health departments can identify laws, regulations, and policies that would reduce the need for services or ensure their availability. Health care systems can confirm the need and offer support for such action steps.                                            Working Together SDOH

The key to having an impact on the social determinants is a multisectoral, aligned planning and implementation mechanism with adequate resources for staffing. The public health and the health care sectors each need to work – ideally in sync – to make this happen.

To learn more about how health systems and public health departments can work together, read my full commentary “Social Determinants of Health Can Only Be Addressed by a Multisector Spectrum of Activities” in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

John Auerbach,

John Auerbach, MBA

John Auerbach, MBA, is president and CEO of TFAH, where he oversees TFAH’s work to promote sound public health policy and make disease prevention a national priority. Over the course of a thirty-year career he has held senior public health positions at the federal, state, and local levels. As Associate Director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) he oversaw policy and the agency’s collaborative efforts with CMS, commercial payers, and large health systems. He also served as the Acting Director of the Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support.