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March-April 2021

Industry Perspectives: Treating the Whole Person — The Importance of SDOH
By Lauren Riplinger, JD
For The Record
Vol. 33 No. 2 P. 10
For decades, health care has been one of the most relevant topics in politics and policymaking. From research and insurance coverage to finding cures and making treatments accessible, health care dominates many policy conversations in Washington. Thankfully, our understanding of health care has moved beyond just clinical care in a doctor’s office. Understanding health to be a product of all of a patient’s circumstances gives a more holistic—and accurate—view of health care.

AHIMA has taken a leadership role on the issue of collecting and recording social determinants of health (SDOH) data. SDOH are the economic and social conditions that influence the health and quality of life of individuals and populations. AHIMA’s board of directors recently approved a policy statement that says AHIMA “supports the use of public policy to encourage the collection, access, sharing, and use of social determinants of health to enrich clinical decision-making and improve health outcomes, public health, and health inequities in ways that are culturally respectful.”

SDOH issues can have different effects on different communities: Lack of transportation, food insecurity, housing instability, and other problems may impact urban and rural communities dissimilarly. But improving the health of members of any underserved community can be boosted by having access to SDOH data. Collecting SDOH data from patients, while still prioritizing their privacy, is vital for examining community-level problems within a health system, city, county, or ZIP code—and for finding the right solutions for those problems.

Legislators at the local, state, and federal level will all play a key role in prioritizing the importance of SDOH data. AHIMA’s new policy statement states that it believes public policy must do the following:

• Establish global standards to promote the capture, use, maintenance, and sharing of SDOH data.

• Promote health care delivery and financing models designed to integrate SDOH data into the clinical setting in ways that are culturally respectful.

• Build patient trust and foster positive patient-provider relationships to encourage patients to share their social challenges.

• Enhance the sharing of SDOH data across clinical and community-based organizations and service providers.

• Prioritize privacy.

• Recognize workforce training needs.

• Promote the ethical collection and use of SDOH data.

• Embrace the role of health information professionals.

In short, recording, using, and sharing SDOH data allows health care providers to better create meaningful and accurate health journeys for not only patients but entire communities. And health information professionals can offer a unique perspective on how to use and share SDOH data, as they already work with health data across their organizations.

AHIMA is passionate about gathering SDOH data for many reasons—for instance, it can play an important role as the United States transitions to a value-based health care model. Without gathering the data to be able to move upstream and consider health care in a more holistic way, we will continue to play catch-up and treat diseases after they happen. With a focus on SDOH and areas such as food insecurity, education, transportation, housing, and social support, public policy can move to create and support healthier people and communities.

Lauren Riplinger, JD, is AHIMA’s vice president of advocacy, public policy, and government affairs.