Incorporating a New Model into Healthcare Using Community Resources

This is a guest post by My Little Social Worker. 

In 1965 a man named Dr. Geiger began prescribing his patients with resources, stating simply, “the last time I checked my textbooks, the specific therapy for malnutrition was food.” Intuitively it makes sense. There are a myriad of ailments that cannot be fixed within the walls of a medical facility. A little girl cannot be relieved of her asthma if she lives in a home with poor air quality. Elevations in BMI cannot be addressed if a family is too poor to buy healthier food or is uneducated about healthy living habits.

While there are a limitless number of ideas about how to change our healthcare system for the better, they often do not consider the challenges we face before and after entering the hospital – challenges Dr. Geiger sought to address. There is little doubt that the current U.S. healthcare system aims at managing disease instead of preventing it, minimizing damage, and moving on. It minimizes damage to patients that often could be prevented if our healthcare system tried more to maintain good health instead of just managing the unhealthy.

So, naturally, I was excited when I discovered an organization called Health Leads, which completely turns the page on our existing paradigm. Their agenda is straightforward — to maintain health while simultaneously training the next generation of health leaders.

It is a simple model by which doctors can prescribe their patients with basic resources in addition to traditional medications. Instead of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, physicians are adopting an ecological view that forces them to confront difficult and previously unaddressed issues. Rather than simply writing a prescription, they are asking themselves, “Can the family read the prescription? Do they have transportation? Do they have food to take? Do they have insurance to fill the prescription?”

After a doctor writes a non-clinical prescription, patients fill it by going to trained medical students in the hospital who introduce them to existing community resources for assistance things like food, housing, and heating assistance. The medical students act much like social workers, bridging the communication gap between physicians, patients, and communities. Instead of wasting time in waiting rooms, people are reclaiming this time to begin a path towards maintaining health with non-clinical improvements. After participants are referred to resources, they receive follow up calls from Health Leads to ensure that their needs are being met.

Health Leads was founded by Rebecca Onie in 1996 under the conviction that things don’t have to be “just the way they are” for U.S. healthcare. Onie recognized that there are a multitude of environmental conditions that cause illness and prevent people from being healthy; she noticed that physicians with short appointment times and high levels of stress easily overlook possible barriers their patients face in becoming healthy. She came to believe that people remain in poor health not because of the lack of sophisticated specialists or substandard technologies, but because our approach to health is so narrowly focused on immediate treatment that it discourages providers from addressing important non-clinical issues that have an impact equal to that of medical technology.

It is uncommon to find a healthcare solution that does not involve some kind of economic trade off. However, all across the country, Health Leads continues to benefit others with a non-profit model. The New York Times 2011 referred to it as “one of the most impressive organizations in the country at addressing the conditions that make people sick.” The program is not only proven to increase overall wellness of participants, but it is also providing a unique educational internship opportunity for medical students, leaving them well-equipped to participate in the clinical world with a broader perspective. The program is highly rigorous and competitive and plans to create a new generation of health leaders who will improve the way patient care is delivered in the United States. Health Leads provides valuable experience, better care, and investment in the future of health — all without increasing tax spending or placing a greater burden on our providers.

Today, there are 1000 advocates with 9000 participants all over the country connecting people with their communities to improve and maintain their health.

Onie’s basic idea is not new, but Health Leads is showing wonderful impact. Instead of using diagnostic information to treat people, providers are acknowledging the big picture while utilizing an eager team of students who are unencumbered by clinical responsibilities. This is a model of social innovation we should continue to encourage and replicate across the country.

This article is a guest post by My Little Social Worker, a collection of journals offering insight into the field of social work, advice for students, and inspiration. Follow My Little Social worker on Twitter at @MyLittleSWer.