HealthMay 06, 2024

The role of nurses in addressing healthcare access and equity

As healthcare costs continue to escalate and the healthcare industry undergoes a paradigm shift from traditional healthcare models to more-value-based frameworks, the disparity between underserved communities’ access to care and access by the larger population continues to grow. Nurses are in a unique position to identify and address the social determinants of health (SDoH) that factor into health inequities.

The healthcare landscape continues to shift, with more and more focus on costs and a move to value-based care. It’s no secret that healthcare costs have been rising at an alarming rate, making access to affordable, high-quality care even more difficult for marginalized communities and underserved groups. As care moves out of reach, health inequities become greater, which in turn causes avoidable costs and financial waste.

In fact, Deloitte estimates that health inequities account for about $320 billion in annual healthcare spending, which is projected to grow to $1 trillion or more by 2040 if unaddressed. That spending could have dramatic effects on the healthcare industry by reducing affordability, lowering quality levels, and putting access to care beyond the challenges that already exist.

Health equity has long been a goal within the healthcare industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the goal as “the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health.” The CDC further says that accomplishing that goal necessitates ongoing societal efforts to correct historical and contemporary injustices; overcome economic, social, and other obstacles to healthcare; and eliminate preventable health disparities.

Health inequity is driven by many factors

Healthcare providers have always recognized that nonmedical factors in the form of social determinants of health (SDoH) play significant roles in patient outcomes. A clinical study estimated that SDoH are the leading aspects in up to 75% of health outcomes. SDoH, which include economic, societal, and environmental situations and influences, contribute to health inequities.

In their frontline roles, nurses are uniquely situated to assess SDoH that patients may be experiencing. Nurses’ patient-facing capacity can help them understand the connections between SDoH and the health challenges patients face. Nurses feel well-informed about and confident in discussing SDoH — particularly when the issues involve access to healthcare, according to a 2020 study.

Nurses in a unique position to screen for SDoH

When it comes to actually screening for SDoH, nurses might rely on existing tools like the Accountable Health Communities Health-Related Social Needs Screening Tool, which consists of 10 questions that assess five key domains of a patient’s health-related social needs. The tool can help healthcare organizations in pinpointing areas of patients’ needs for attention and thereby close the critical gap between clinical care and community services. Assessment tools typically focus on common SDoH areas such as housing, food, transportation, employment, education, financial strain, and personal safety.

Healthcare organizations may also opt to develop their own SDoH screeners or programs. In that case, it’s important to outline up-front expectations and the frequency of assessments, as well as patient education on the reasons for collecting data, how data will be used, and who will have access to the data. Once screeners have been integrated into electronic health records, nurses can easily integrate collection into their usual workflows. The collected data helps nurses identify patients at risk of negative health outcomes and connect such patients with needed services.

Fewer health disparities mean better outcomes

The critical role of nurses in the area of SDoH is key because health inequities can keep patients from getting quality healthcare, can raise obstacles to healthy lifestyles, and can negatively affect patients’ ability to effectively manage their care and gain access to needed treatment. Tackling SDoH and health inequities stands to contribute to improved patient outcomes, a more positive patient experience, and better quality of life.

The correction of health inequities has financial implications as well. Healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, resulting in unaffordable bills and diminished health and productivity. In fact, it’s estimated that health inequities in the United States account for $42 billion in lost productivity annually.

Given the human and financial impacts of health inequity, nurses have become more important than ever in shining a light on this crucial issue, in advocating for their patients, and in delivering essential care that transcends social factors.

Find out more about how Lippincott® Solutions can help nurses provide care to all patient populations.

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